Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fred Thompson's Big Lie to RNC on McCain POW Story

Nothing is more wrenching, more emotionally volatile than the story of prisoners of war, no matter what the country or the cause: the torture they endure (or endured), and the mind-numbing horror of contemplating the inhumanity of those who do the torturing. McCain is playing on his torture history as POW in his run for the presidency. On Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, also-ran former Senator Fred Thompson gave a speech lauding McCain, and describing the suffering of the GOP presidential nominee when he was held as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese from 1967-73.

There is much that could be made of the lies, exaggerations, and ordinary political mischief in Thompson's speech. But one big lie stood out. In his narration of McCain's torture story, he changed one important fact. And since it bears on the larger question as to whether torture "works," it's worth mentioning here.

In his speech, Thompson said the following:
On October 26, 1967, on his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, a surface-to-air missile slammed into John's A-4 Skyhawk jet, blowing it out of the sky. When John ejected, part of the plane hit him, breaking his right leg, his right knee, his left arm and right arm in three places.

An angry mob got to him when he fell to the ground. A rifle butt broke his shoulder. A bayonet pierced his ankle and his groin. They took him to the Hanoi Hilton, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. He was offered medical care for his injuries if he would give up military information in return.

John McCain said, "No".

After days of neglect, covered in grime, lying in his own waste in a filthy room, a doctor attempted to set John's right arm without success and without anesthesia. His other broken bones and injuries were not treated. John developed a high fever and dysentery. He weighed barely a hundred pounds. Expecting him to die, his captors placed him in a cell with two other POWs who also expected him to die.

But with their help, John McCain fought on. He persevered. [Emphasis added]
Too bad for Fred Thompson that McCain's own narrative of his torture and incarceration is online and available for anyone to read. "It originally appeared in the May 14, 1973, issue of U.S. News & World Report. It was posted online on January 28, 2008."

Truth and Lies

Thompson maintains McCain refused to give up military information to his captors in exchange for medical treatment, despite a broken shoulder, arms, right knee and leg, and also despite being pierced by a bayonet in his ankle and his groin. That's quite a hero, John McCain, to withstand such pain and terror. Except he didn't, and in his own words:
For the next three or four days, I lapsed from conscious to unconsciousness. During this time, I was taken out to interrogation—which we called a "quiz"—several times. That's when I was hit with all sorts of war-criminal charges. This started on the first day. I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They beat me around a little bit. I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious. They kept saying, "You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk"....

They wanted military rather than political information at this time. Every time they asked me something, I'd just give my name, rank and serial number and date of birth.

I think it was on the fourth day that two guards came in, instead of one. One of them pulled back the blanket to show the other guard my injury. I looked at my knee. It was about the size, shape and color of a football. I remembered that when I was a flying instructor a fellow had ejected from his plane and broken his thigh. He had gone into shock, the blood had pooled in his leg, and he died, which came as quite a surprise to us -- a man dying of a broken leg. Then I realized that a very similar thing was happening to me.

When I saw it, I said to the guard, "O.K., get the officer." An officer came in after a few minutes. It was the man that we came to know very well as "The Bug." He was a psychotic torturer, one of the worst fiends that we had to deal with. I said, "O.K., I'll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital." [Emphasis added]
A doctor came, but, in this interview, McCain said his physician was "completely incompetent," and that he was only taken to a hospital in the last analysis because it was discovered his father was an admiral. As we shall see, McCain changed the story somewhat in his 1999 autobiography.

An article by Ted Rall earlier this year said this about McCain's shoot-down over Hanoi:
McCain is lucky the locals didn't finish him off. U.S. bombs had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, many in Hanoi. Ultimately between one and two million innocents would be shredded, impaled, blown to bits and dissolved by American bombs. Now that one of their tormentors had fallen into their hands, they had a rare chance to get even. "About 40 people were standing there," On later recalled. "They were about to rush him with their fists and stones. I asked them not to kill him. He was beaten for a while before I could stop them." He was turned over to local policemen, who transferred him to the military.
Rall also notes that an Arizona Republic article from 2007 covered the issue of McCain's collaboration (I unfortunately could find no original link to the AR article):
After his capture, wrote the Republic, "He was placed in a cell and told he would not receive any medical treatment until he gave military information. McCain refused and was beaten unconscious. On the fourth day, two guards entered McCain's cell. One pulled back the blanket to reveal McCain's injured knee. 'It was about the size, shape and color of a football,' McCain recalled. Fearful of blood poisoning that would lead to death, McCain told his captors he would talk if they took him to a hospital." [Emphasis added]
Giving Up Information

There's also this article from Newsmax, dated November 29, 2005, titled "John McCain: Torture Worked for Me":
In his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain describes how he was severely injured when his plane was shot down over Hanoi - and how his North Vietnamese interrogators used his injuries to extract information.

"Demands for military information were accompanied by threats to terminate my medical treatment if I did not cooperate," he wrote.

"I thought they were bluffing and refused to provide any information beyond my name, rank and serial number, and date of birth. They knocked me around a little to force my cooperation."

The punishment finally worked, McCain said. "Eventually, I gave them my ship's name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant."

Recalling how he gave up military information to his interrogators, McCain said: "I regret very much having done so. The information was of no real use to the Vietnamese, but the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War orders us to refrain from providing any information beyond our names, rank and serial number." [Emphasis added]
McCain is also on the record having broken under torture in other circumstances, even to the point of giving what he felt was false recantation of his actions as a U.S. pilot.

But this is not really an article meant to document the totality of Senator McCain's torture history. It is an article about historical falsification and the control of narrative by politicians today. It is also an article that I think highlights the mendacity of the McCain of 2008, a man who will let lies like Thompson's be told about him, who will change his position against torture to one that backs Bush's gleeful endorsement of "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the CIA, not excluding waterboarding.

There is even more harm done than the twisting of historical narrative in the service of political opportunism. That happens all the time. But the larger societal debate about torture is often discussed in terms of whether it "works" or not. Does torture produce reliable information? Can torture be reliably used to "break" individuals?

CIA on Whether Torture Works

McCain used to be an honest man. He was on record as saying torture can break a man down. He admits that, even though he tried to minimize the revelations, some information can be obtained via torture. Often enough that information is unreliable, or only partly true. And the CIA is certainly aware that torture is not the best way to get information from a captive. They say as much in their infamous Kubark torture manual:
Psychologists and others who write about physical or psychological duress frequently object that under sufficient pressure subjects usually yield but that their ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as the will to resist. This pragmatic objection has somewhat the same validity for a counterintelligence interrogation as for any other. But there is one significant difference. Confession is a necessary prelude to the CI interrogation of a hitherto unresponsive or concealing source. And the use of coercive techniques will rarely or never confuse an interrogatee so completely that he does not know whether his own confession is true or false. He does not need full mastery of all his powers of resistance and discrimination to know whether he is a spy or not. Only subjects who have reached a point where they are under delusions are likely to make false confessions that they believe. Once a true confession is obtained, the classic cautions apply. The pressures are lifted, at least enough so that the subject can provide counterintelligence information as accurately as possible. In fact, the relief granted the subject at this time fits neatly into the interrogation plan. He is told that the changed treatment is a reward for truthfulness and an evidence that friendly handling will continue as long as he cooperates.

The profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage has been stated. Judging the validity of other ethical arguments about coercion exceeds the scope of this paper. What is fully clear, however, is that controlled coercive manipulation of an interrogatee may impair his ability to make fine distinctions but will not alter his ability to answer correctly such gross questions as "Are you a Soviet agent? What is your assignment now? Who is your present case officer?" [Emphasis added]
In any case, as recent events from Baghram and Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib indicate, the U.S. government certainly doesn't want to release torture from its arsenal. This is what the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which received strong backing from John McCain, was largely about. As to the empirical "success" of torture, we really don't know (unless the secret police agencies of the world open up their archives). But it's important to remember that fear of torture is a better elicitor of information than torture itself, and an interrogator wants something to present to the prisoner that makes that fear seem legitimate, that communicates total control and a dependent status to the captive. (Other interrogators rely on building rapport, a technique the CIA also embraces, while maintaining coercive techniques as part of the interrogator's arsensal.) For better or worse, this is one way to make a person talk, if they do talk or not. And not everyone does.

But most do. John McCain did. He is not to be criticized for this. It is only human, and the guilt he feels over it is far worse than any punishment he would merit for such "talking."

2008 Election and the Falsification of History

This leaves us with one glaring question: why did Fred Thompson lie so brazenly about John McCain's experience? The answer seems clear. They cannot handle the truth about torture. They are trying to present a hero-like image of their candidate that resonates with what their supporters know from human nature as gleaned from comic-book movies, video-games, and TV shows like 24, where the hero is beaten and shot repeatedly, but is always able to get back up and take on the bad guy.

Such pandering to the adolescent omnipotent fantasies of the electorate is dangerous. It threatens to cheapen what is a profound human experience -- being tortured -- and just at a time when the government is pushing to legitimate this brazen practice of inhumane criminality. It also sets up a dynamic in the electorate that emphasizes the irrational and the ignorant. It is an attack upon a reasoned discussion of the issues. It is a big lie, and it should be exposed and denounced.

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