Salter: ‘I Don’t Know Why’ People Say McCain ‘Let The CIA Off The Hook’ On Waterboarding

In 2005, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) embarked on his efforts to rein in the administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, his staff initially circulated a bill stating that “no person under U.S. control could be treated or interrogated with techniques ‘not authorized by or listed in’” the Army Field Manual. But McCain soon dropped this draft language, instead narrowing the scope of his legislation “to require the field manual’s use only for the military interrogations or interrogations on military property.”

When McCain struck a deal in 2006 with the White House over rules to govern military tribunals and interrogations, the White House said that it “would allow a key CIA interrogation program for suspected terrorists to go forward.” Since then, the administration has refused to rule out the use of waterboarding in CIA interrogations.

But in an interview released yesterday for PBS’ Frontline, top McCain aide Mark Salter, claimed that critics were “quite wrong” to say that McCain “let the CIA off the hook”:

QUESTION: And for those who say, Mark, he let the CIA off the hook?


SALTER: I don’t know why they say that. I think they’re quite wrong. … We negotiated with several members in the Senate — John Warner [R-Va.], Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] and the others — very senior members of the administration for a long time. And to get a standard in statute that we felt would prevent things like water boarding, we needed to rewrite the war crimes statutes, to change their definitions.

Now remember, some of the violations are punishable by death, serious. And to get them to allow us to do that, we agreed the law would not be retroactive but from date of enactment. I think that’s a perfectly respectable decision for a lawmaker to make. … You’re not going to get it done any other way.

Salter’s claimed confusion, however, is contradicted by former McCain aide John Weaver, who acknowledged to Frontline that there was “a CIA loophole.” Weaver said that if McCain is elected, it “will be fixed immediately”:

QUESTION: There’s one other practical side of it, though, the much-talked-about CIA loophole. Where does that come from?

WEAVER: When you’re trying to pass something, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. And I think at the end of the day, they did the best they could on that issue. And I think that’s how he sees it. I mean, he worked very hard with [Sen.] Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] and with Colin Powell. And I can assure you that if he’s president, that will be fixed immediately.

Furthermore, when the Senate voted in February to outlaw waterboarding by establishing one interrogation standard across the government, McCain voted against it. McCain then urged President Bush to veto the legislation, which Bush did.