The second Republican presidential debate of the 2008 campaign season was held in Columbia, South Carolina — the conservative state where John McCain’s dreams of upending the George W. Bush juggernaut died in 2000. So when Brit Hume from Fox News asked McCain a question about waterboarding and other forms of torture, the prudent political strategy would have been to pander to GOP fears of terrorism.
But for McCain, the only presidential candidate to have ever been a prisoner of war, this was not an abstract topic. In 1968, after he refused early release from a Hanoi prison camp, McCain was so brutally beaten by his North Vietnamese captors that he was driven to the brink of suicide.
That history gave McCain’s unequivocal 2007 debate answer emotional heft:
“When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us, as we underwent torture ourselves, is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them.
“It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are. And a fact: The more physical pain you inflict on someone, the more they’re going to tell you what they think you want to know.”
Of course, now, McCain is home at his ranch in Arizona, fighting what sadly may be his final battle as he plans which presidents he wants to deliver eulogies at his funeral (Bush and Barack Obama) and which president won’t be invited (Donald Trump).
Had McCain been healthy, it would have been riveting to watch him question Gina Haspel on Wednesday during her confirmation hearing for CIA director. Imagine, a distinguished senator who had been tortured pitted against a veteran cloak-and-dagger operative who had approved of waterboarding and oversaw its use in late 2002 at a CIA secret prison in Thailand.
Much of Haspel’s 33-year record at the CIA remains shrouded in secrecy, which further complicates efforts to assess her decisions as she rose through the ranks at the spy agency. In fact, Mark Warner and other Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have complained about the CIA’s tactics in only declassifying positive portions of Haspel’s career while insisting that problematic aspects should remain secret.
But what has emerged from internal CIA documents, reviewed by the Intelligence panel, is that Haspel was an unquestioning proponent of brutal interrogation methods like waterboarding, which is simulated drowning. Despite its seemingly benign name (sounding like the aquatic version of skateboarding), waterboarding violates the Geneva Convention and has subsequently been banned in all cases by the U.S. government.
Watch: Expect a Full-Throated Push to Confirm Haspel as Next CIA Chief
A really big gap
Also problematic for Haspel was her advocacy for destroying nearly 100 hours of CIA torture tapes in 2005 to avoid further scrutiny. While Haspel played a role in drafting a cable ordering the shredding of the tapes, she was not the final decision-maker.
Unlike most Senate confirmation hearings in the Trump era — from Betsy DeVos to Mike Pompeo — the nomination of Haspel is not overly political. She is an apolitical CIA lifer, instead of a sketchy former general who led “lock her up” cheers at Trump rallies (defrocked national security adviser Michael Flynn), a conservative firebrand (current national security adviser John Bolton) or a former GOP House member (Pompeo).
Rather, the battle over Haspel symbolizes the clashing values of the uniformed military versus the national security state.
In a sharp rebuke to Haspel, 109 retired generals and admirals signed a letter questioning her nomination because of her involvement in torture. In contrast, a blue-ribbon roster of former CIA directors — including virulent Trump critics — support her.
McCain’s presence at the hearing would have helped clarify the debate over whether Haspel should be permanently barred from a major promotion to CIA director because of her activities in Thailand and elsewhere in the panicked years after 9/11.
A strong argument can be made that complicity in torture is a moral blot that can never be washed away, even if Haspel persuasively expresses her regrets at Wednesday’s hearing. Similarly, having supported the destruction of evidence (the torture tapes) does not suggest that Haspel values openness and accountability when the CIA steps out of line.
And yet, with Trump in the White House, there are deep fears of the politicization of intelligence — monkeying with the truth in support of a political agenda in such a flagrant manner that it would embarrass Dick Cheney. The CIA alumni network certainly believes that Haspel would do her best to safeguard the agency from Trump’s whims.
But the Haspel hearing is also a moment to reflect on one of the might-have-beens of history.
Had McCain (after a landslide 2000 win over Bush in New Hampshire) hung on in the South Carolina primary, the Arizona senator would probably have been the GOP nominee and most likely would have defeated Al Gore because of the aftereffects of the Bill Clinton scandals.
A President McCain, with his military background and his moral fiber, would have been a reassuring figure after the 9/11 attacks. And while McCain’s hawkish instincts might have also led America into disaster in Iraq, he never would have tolerated the horrors of CIA black sites or the torture and breakdown of military discipline at Iraqi prisons like Abu Ghraib.
As an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, McCain will presumably have a chair waiting for him at the Haspel hearing. And Wednesday, every time the door opens, I will fantasize about him striding in to claim that seat and add a former POW’s wisdom to the questioning on torture.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.