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McCain Could Be the Key to a Truth Commission

In reporting yesterday on the fallout from Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) proposal last week to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the Bush administration’s alleged crimes in connection with its “war on terror,” I neglected to mention that in 2005 Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) had proposed a similar commission — which he called a “National Commission on Policies and Practices on Treatment of Detainees Since September 11, 2001.” The aim would similarly have been to get at the truth, though the amendment did not rule out the possibility of subsequent prosecutions. (To be fair, Leahy hasn’t actually proposed any legislation yet, so we don’t know if he’d rule out prosecutions, either — but he has made clear in statements that the proposed commission might grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony.)

Levin’s proposed amendment died in the Senate after a strict party-line vote. But as Chris Anders at the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out to me yesterday, one key senator did not vote: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Actually, when I looked up the vote, it turns out that then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) didn’t vote either, but that’s because he was busy getting elected as New Jersey’s governor on that same day. But McCain?

McCain is, of course, the senator and presidential candidate who was widely praised for his principled stand against torture — including waterboarding — and in favor of the superior values of the American military. After all, McCain was tortured as a POW in the Vietnam war.

Of course, all principles have exceptions, and McCain last year voted against a bill that would have limited the CIA to the techniques allowed by the Army field manual. Still, he maintained that “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” was clearly banned by the Detainee Treatment Act, which he did vote for.

So why did McCain sit out the vote on the Levin bill that would have created a commission to investigate whether abusive techniques occurred? And what would he do if a new bill to create an investigatory commission comes up for a vote in the Senate? I’ve put both questions to McCain’s staff. No answers yet.

If a vote on a new bill came down largely along party lines, as it did the last time, McCain’s support could be key to the outcome — if he did support such a bill, with his influence and stature on the issue, he could probably persuade a few of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate to join him.

I’ll report back if and when I receive any answers from McCain’s office.

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