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My time with John McCain, and why I know he’s so adamantly anti-torture

Possible presidential candidate Rick Santorum says Sen. John McCain 'doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works.' Who knows better than the former POW?

By Staff writer / May 18, 2011

John McCain, (front, right) with flight students at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1965. Two years later, McCain was shot down and captured in North Vietnam, tortured and imprisoned for more than five years. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross Medal, and Prisoner of War (POW) Medal.

Library of Congress / AP / File

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When I first met John McCain, he was known as a “screamer.”

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It was 1965 at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Miss., where I was a flight student and McCain was a flight instructor in T-2 Buckeye aircraft – the two-seat jet trainer used to prepare aviators for deployment as “tailhookers” aboard aircraft carriers.

It was an unusually demanding and often stressful regimen under the best of circumstances. With John McCain in the backseat of the T-2, it was much worse.

He began the preflight briefing hollering obscenities and personal abuse, which continued during the flight and through the post-flight debriefing back in the ready room. Sometimes when flying, he’d take off his kneeboard and whack student pilots on the helmet.

In over a year of flight training, I never had an instructor nearly as abusive as McCain, and I was very glad not to have been assigned more than a few hops with him.

Fast-forward 13 years.

McCain had been shot down on his 23rd mission and taken prisoner in North Vietnam in 1967 – news, I admit, that did not make me unhappy. A year later, I was flying A-4 Skyhawk aircraft on combat missions over Vietnam myself.

Now, it was the five-year reunion of the returned POWs in 1978. McCain was there in Los Angeles, and so was I – as a Monitor reporter covering the gathering. I have to say, the sight of him still made me nervous.

“You’re not going to remember me,” I said, introducing myself. “I was one of your flight students back in Meridian.”

The first thing he said as we shook hands was, “I’m sorry for the way I was then.” I was a little startled – and impressed. Obviously, something had happened to change his attitude – or at least make him want to change the way he might be remembered.

What had happened, of course, was more than five years in captivity, including episodes of such extreme physical and psychological torture that he considered suicide.

Both of us had been through the Navy’s SERE school – “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” – with its mock prison compound and instructors, in “enemy” uniforms and faked foreign accents, who smacked us around and locked us in coffin-sized boxes to elicit information about weapons systems and ship movements.

But the real thing – not just the physical treatment, but the despair at not knowing if it will ever end – is immeasurably worse. For McCain, it was not just beatings, but broken bones and being trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders.

I thought about all this while reading of McCain’s debate about torture – “enhanced interrogation,” in current parlance – with former senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum.

Earlier this week, Santorum said McCain “doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works.” He was asserting that the harsh interrogation of some Al Qaeda captives held by the US military and the CIA – including the drowning technique known as “waterboarding” – led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

In a Washington Post op-ed column, McCain had pointed out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – waterboarded 183 times – in fact “produced false and misleading information” about the identity of the courier who proved to be the key link to bin Laden.

“According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee … was obtained through standard, noncoercive means,” McCain wrote, echoing what CIA director Leon Panetta has asserted as well.

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear – true or false – if he believes it will relieve his suffering,” McCain wrote.

The implication that Santorum – who has no direct experience in anything related to combat or captivity – could suggest that he knows more than McCain about the utility of torture brought swift and harsh criticism.

Within a day, Santorum had to issue a statement (although not an apology) saying: “For anyone to infer my disagreement with Senator McCain's policy position lessens my respect for his service to our country and all he had to endure is outrageous and unfortunate.”

Santorum said his position is based on “everything I’ve read.” McCain’s is from personal experience. I may not have liked him much when we were both a lot younger, but I’m going with McCain.

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