Rush Limbaugh twice falsely claimed that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had "admitted that torture worked on him" during his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The false assertion originated in a NewsMax.com article and is not supported by McCain's version of events.
On the December 6 and 8 broadcasts of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had "admitted that torture worked on him" during his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. By making this claim, Limbaugh clearly intended to undermine McCain's vocal opposition to the Bush administration's policies regarding the treatment of suspected terrorists. But this assertion, which originated in a November 29 article on the conservative news website NewsMax.com, is not supported by McCain's version of events. While McCain has acknowledged that he gave his captors some information beyond his name, rank, and serial number, he has also repeatedly said that he divulged "no useful information," and he has described in detail the considerable amount of false information that he instead provided.
In response to widespread allegations of abusive interrogation tactics employed by U.S. forces, McCain recently proposed an amendment to clarify what techniques are permissible. The measure, which the Senate passed by a vote of 90-9, would limit all Department of Defense (DOD) interrogations to techniques listed in the Army Field Manual and prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" against any "individual in the custody or under the physical control of the [U.S.] government." While the White House has strongly opposed any such restrictions, McCain has defended his measure by arguing that the use of torture tarnishes the U.S. image and asserting that such techniques "produce bad intelligence" anyway.
On November 29, NewsMax published an article headlined "John McCain: Torture Worked on Me," which claimed that McCain's experiences as a victim of torture as he has described them contradict his oft-repeated assertion that torture fails to produce actionable intelligence:
Nearly forty years ago, however -- when McCain was held captive in a North Vietnamese prison camp -- some of the same techniques were used on him. And -- as McCain has publicly admitted at least twice -- the torture worked!
That McCain broke under torture doesn't make him any less of an American hero. But it does prove he's wrong to claim that harsh interrogation techniques simply don't work.
As evidence, the article cited two of McCain's recollections from his time as a prisoner of war in which he purportedly "broke under physical pressure." In its first example, the NewsMax article cited a passage in McCain's autobiography, Faith of My Fathers (Random House, August 1999), in which he describes his violation of the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War, which states that POWs are allowed to "give name, rank, service number and date of birth" and requires them to "evade answering further questions":
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."
But while the NewsMax article included McCain's acknowledgement that the information he provided "was of no real use" to his captors, it excluded a great deal of additional detail included in his autobiography regarding the full nature of the information he "gave up." For example, McCain described how the interrogators pressed for more "useful" intelligence after he identified his ship, squadron, and target. In response, he provided them with only false information:
Eventually, I gave them my ship's name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant. Pressed for more useful information, I gave the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, and said they were members of my squadron. When asked to identify future targets, I simply recited the names of a number of North Vietnamese cities that had already been bombed. [Page 194*]
NewsMax's omission of these details is particularly misleading given that McCain has often referenced them in making the argument that torture is futile as an intelligence-gathering tool. In an opinion piece , titled "Torture's Terrible Toll," in the November 21 edition of Newsweek, McCain recalled how his abuse at the hands of the North Vietnamese led him to divulge false information, rather than "actionable intelligence":
Obviously, to defeat our enemies we need intelligence, but intelligence that is reliable. We should not torture or treat inhumanely terrorists we have captured. The abuse of prisoners harms, not helps, our war effort. In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- whether it is true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering. I was once physically coerced to provide my enemies with the names of the members of my flight squadron, information that had little if any value to my enemies as actionable intelligence. But I did not refuse, or repeat my insistence that I was required under the Geneva Conventions to provide my captors only with my name, rank and serial number. Instead, I gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse. It seems probable to me that the terrorists we interrogate under less than humane standards of treatment are also likely to resort to deceptive answers that are perhaps less provably false than that which I once offered.
Elsewhere in his autobiography, McCain described other instances in which he lied to interrogators:
Once we were instructed to write summaries of our military histories. We invented all the details. Mine contained references to service in Antarctica and as a naval attaché in Oslo, two places, I am sorry to say, I had never visited. [Page 203]
Once I was instructed to draw a diagram of an aircraft carrier. I decided to comply with the order, but took considerable artistic license in the process. I drew a picture of a ship's deck with a large swimming pool on the fantail, the captain's quarters in a chain locker, and various other imagined embellishments.
Vietnamese propaganda about the soft, luxurious life that upper-class Westerners (a social class to which military officers were naturally thought to belong) made the interrogators easy marks for a lot of the b.s. we devised to avoid giving them any useful information. [Page 222]
In the second example cited by NewsMax, after withstanding days of severe beatings in the North Vietnamese prison camp known as the "Hanoi Hilton," McCain signed a document confessing to war crimes:
Just after his release in May 1973, he [McCain] detailed his experience as a P.O.W. in a lengthy account in U.S. News & World Report.
He described the day Hanoi Hilton guards beat him "from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes."
"For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards ... Finally, I reached the lowest point of my 5 1/2 years in North Vietnam. I was at the point of suicide, because I saw that I was reaching the end of my rope."
McCain was taken to an interrogation room and ordered to sign a document confessing to war crimes. "I signed it," he recalled. "It was in their language, and spoke about black crimes, and other generalities."
"I had learned what we all learned over there," McCain said. "Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine."
But NewsMax's use of excerpts from McCain's 1973 account in U.S. News & World Report to prove the efficacy of torture is highly disingenuous. While the 1973 article merely described the confession as referring to "black crimes, and other generalities," the relevant passage in McCain's autobiography noted that the document he ultimately signed accused him of committing crimes that his captors would have had no evidence that he committed -- such as bombing a school. Thus, if torture resulted in a detainee admitting to crimes he did not commit, then by NewsMax's standards it had "worked." From McCain's autobiography:
On the fourth day, I gave up.
"I am a black criminal," the interrogator wrote, "and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate. I almost died and the Vietnamese people saved my life. The doctors gave me an operation that I did not deserve."
I had been taken back to the theater after telling my guards I was ready to confess. For twelve hours I had written out many drafts of the confession. I used the words that I hoped would discredit its authenticity, and I tried to keep it in stilted generalities and Communist jargon so that it would be apparent that I had signed it under duress.
An interrogator had edited my last draft and decided to rewrite most of it himself. He then handed it to me and told me to copy it out in my own hand. I started to print in block letters, and he ordered me to write in script. He demanded that I add an admission that I had bombed a school. I refused, and we argued back and forth about the confession's contents for a time before I gave in to his demand. Finally, they had me sign the document. [Pages 243-244]
From the December 6 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: If the McCain Amendment passes and we, therefore, extend constitutional protections to terrorists, Al Qaeda terrorists, enemies of the United States, we will just funnel them off to other places without ever having them directly in our -- under our control. And whatever happens to them there, there's not gonna be anything anybody can do to stop -- and it'll probably be worse off for them than now. But what is so disheartening about all of this is that it is simply an effort to gain media attention, to stand out from the crowd, and to appeal to whoever in this country that this is going to appeal to. And it also is a bit egomaniacal in that McCain has appointed himself the expert on torture, because he was tortured for five years. He also admitted that torture worked on him.
From the December 8 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: McCain was on the radio yesterday, saying, "We've got to stop this torture. If you torture somebody, they're going to tell you what they think you want to know in order to make the pain stop." Well, McCain himself once admitted that torture worked on him. He gave up more than his name, rank, and serial number when he was in the Hanoi Hilton. "The maverick Republican senator said, 'The U.S. can't win the propaganda war if people believe throughout the world that you are practicing cruel, inhuman, degrading mistreatment or torture on the people that you capture.' " Well, who is creating the notion that this is happening, Senator? Democrats and you. Democrats and you are the ones that perpetuate the notion that we torture.
*Page numbers for excerpts taken from paperback edition (Harper Paperbacks, September 2001).