Matt Lauer failed to ask Sen. John McCain if he still trusts the White House to abide by the terms of a deal on detainee treatment, in light of President Bush's signing statement accompanying McCain's anti-torture bill in December 2005.
On September 22, the day after key senators and the White House announced an agreement over legislation on the treatment and trial of detainees, NBC's Today co-host Matt Lauer passed up an opportunity to ask an obvious question of interviewee John McCain (R-AZ), the senator touted throughout the negotiation process as a GOP conscience on the issue. That question: How can you have any confidence in the outcome of negotiations with a president who, in finally relenting and signing the anti-torture bill you had so passionately promoted, issued a signing statement at the same time indicating that he reserved the right not to abide by that new law?
As Media Matters for America has noted, McCain initially objected to Bush's December 2005 signing statement but has remained largely silent about it since. Despite Bush's previous signing statement, during the September 22 interview with Lauer, McCain promoted the new agreement's purported prohibition on "breaches of conduct," such as "waterboarding," asserting that "you will never see that again."
As Media Matters has documented, in late 2005, McCain sponsored an amendment to a defense authorization bill that banned "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." The White House initially threatened to veto the legislation, or ensure that an exemption for the CIA was added. McCain opposed such an exemption, and after the House of Representatives, in a nonbinding vote, overwhelmingly supported McCain's amendment without the CIA exemption, Bush agreed to support it. However, when Bush signed the authorization bill -- with McCain's amendment -- into law on December 30, 2005, he issued a presidential signing statement in which, as a January 5 Boston Globe article explained, he effectively reserved the right to unilaterally disregard the McCain ban if he felt it was necessary to do so. As the Globe noted, McCain and other backers of his amendment initially strongly objected to Bush's assertion once they became aware of it:
John W. Warner Jr., a Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, issued a joint statement rejecting Bush's assertion that he can waive the restrictions on the use of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against detainees to protect national security.
''We believe the president understands Congress's intent in passing, by very large majorities, legislation governing the treatment of detainees," the senators said. ''The Congress declined when asked by administration officials to include a presidential waiver of the restrictions included in our legislation. Our committee intends through strict oversight to monitor the administration's implementation of the new law."
Separately, the third primary sponsor of the detainee treatment law, Senator Lindsey O. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told the Globe in a phone interview that he agreed with everything McCain and Warner said ''and would go a little bit further."
''I do not believe that any political figure in the country has the ability to set aside any . . . law of armed conflict that we have adopted or treaties that we have ratified," Graham said. ''If we go down that road, it will cause great problems for our troops in future conflicts because [nothing] is to prevent other nations' leaders from doing the same."
However, since making that initial comment, McCain has remained largely silent about that signing statement.
Lauer neither mentioned nor asked McCain about the signing statement during the interview, nor did he ask McCain if he still trusted the administration to negotiate in good faith in light of the prior episode.
From the September 22 broadcast of NBC's Today:
LAUER: Arizona Republican and former POW Senator John McCain was a key player in the give and take on this bill. Senator McCain, always good to see you. Good morning.
McCAIN: Thank you, Matt.
LAUER: The president said this preserves what is essential, and that is that CIA interrogation program. So, does that mean that you and your Republican colleagues in the Senate feel that the CIA has done nothing or is now doing nothing that goes against the Geneva Conventions?
McCAIN: Of course, there are allegations that they did that in the past. I am not familiar with it. But there's been published reports that they did in the past. But we've preserved the Geneva Conventions. We've allowed the president to move forward with questioning, but we've pointed out what are grave breaches of the War Crimes Act, and if the president wants to use techniques for the CIA, they have to be published in the Federal Register so everyone will know and we can act if we don't like them.
LAUER: But why didn't the Senate -- why didn't you guys stand up and take a take a stand on specifics? Why didn't you say, "Look, OK, there have been reports, for example, with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed at these secret CIA centers that he was waterboarded. We will not let that stand, Mr. President."
McCAIN: We said exactly that. There will be no such thing as waterboarding. We outlined the grave breaches of conduct, and we -- you will never see that again. And we've stood up and said, "That cannot be done." Most importantly, we said we will not change the Geneva Conventions. We're very proud of what we did. The ACLU and others don't want the president to be able to question these people. We think that the program is legitimate.
LAUER: So, when you say you did not -- that the Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions is intact, you feel when you said last week American lives could be placed at risk by what was happening, you now feel with the action that you and your fellow Republicans have taken, that you've put an end to that risk?
McCAIN: Of course. Otherwise we wouldn't have agreed to it. The fact is that we have now given -- preserved the Geneva Convention, given the program a chance to go forward in a legitimate fashion. And we've also set up situations that these trials can begin, and justice will be meted out, and it will meet judicial scrutiny. After this legislation is passed, you will see trials of these Al Qaeda terrorists begin.
LAUER: You know, there are some cynics here -- and there are a lot of cynics in Washington, as you know, Senator McCain -- who say that these senators stood up a couple of weeks ago, and they took the moral high ground, and they said, "We're willing to risk party unity to stand up to the president and say torture will not stand. But in the end, the president got pretty much everything he wanted, and this was all about political theater." How do you respond to that?
McCAIN: I say that there are many who did not want any interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects. I understand they didn't get what they wanted. We worked hard, we preserved the Geneva conventions, we set up a process for trial, and we outlined grave breaches and a way of transparency so we'll know what is being done. That was our goal, we achieved it, and I'm pleased to do that. And I do thank, I do thank those who worked together so we could reach a conclusion on this because that's what our constituents expect us to do. So I'm sorry if you didn't get what you wanted, to the critics. We got what we wanted. And that is the preservation of the Geneva Conventions. There will be no more torture. There will be no more mistreatment of prisoners that would violate standards of conduct that we would expect of people who work for the United States of America.
LAUER: Much was made about a letter that was written to you, Senator, by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, saying that because of the way this debate was moving, he thought that the world was beginning to, quote, "doubt the moral basis of the war on terror." First of all --
McCAIN: I agree with him. I agree with him.
LAUER: -- and have you spoken to Secretary Powell since this agreement, and do you think now that this moves in a direction where he'll be satisfied?
McCAIN: I'm confident he will be satisfied. I'm confident all the other admirals and generals who wrote, and I'm -- but I'm not confident the ACLU and other, more liberal organizations will be satisfied because they didn't want this program. So, we have a difference. But I think you'll see progress. I think you can be proud of what we've done. But more importantly, we have preserved the Geneva Conventions. We will still allow these terrible terrorists to be questioned, and we will see -- you will see them go on trial. That was our goal, that's what we've achieved. And that's -- and we're very happy.
LAUER: Senator John McCain coming to us from Capitol Hill this morning.
McCAIN: Thank you, Matt.
LAUER: Senator, good to see you.
McCAIN: Thank you.