Monday, February 25, 2008

On Torture and on Capitol Hill Ethics, McCain Is Senator 'John McHypocrite'

While the Mainstream Media Focus on Arizona Senator's Alleged Relationship With a Lobbyist, His Vote Against -- and Call on President Bush to Veto -- an Anti-Waterboarding Bill Is a Dramatic About-Face for a Man Who Says He Abhors Torture

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain addresses ...

Republican presidential candidate John McCain addresses members of the media as his wife Cindy listens during a news confrerence Thursday in which he denied assertions published the previous day by The New York Times that McCain once had a close relationship with a female lobbyist whose clients had business before his Senate committee. But while the media focused on the alleged relationship, little was reported about his vote against a bill to ban waterboarding as a form of torture -- and his call on President Bush to veto it. (Photo: John Sommers II/Reuters)

By Skeeter Sanders

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has long prided himself as being a "straight shooter" when talking about himself and his beliefs. The Arizona senator was the darling of independent voters in his 2000 run for the White House by railing against the overbearing influence of lobbyists over members of Congress.

More recently, McCain, who suffered torture as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, angered the Bush administration and conservatives within his own party by being an outspoken opponent of torture against terrorist suspects, eventually forcing the White House in 2005 to accept an amendment McCain wrote to the defense appropriations bill that prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

But McCain's reputation as a opponent of lobbyists' influence took a severe blow last week when The New York Times published a lengthy article on Wednesday that McCain once had a close relationship with a female lobbyist whose clients had business before his Senate committee.

The newspaper reported that aides to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign were so worried about the relationship that they confronted McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman.

The Times story was published just hours after McCain, in what opponents of torture denounced as a damningly hypocritical about-face, voted against a measure that would bar the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods on terror suspects.

Even more shocking, McCain called on President Bush to veto the bill, which would restrict the CIA to using only the 19 interrogation techniques listed in the Army field manual.

His vote is controversial because the manual prohibits waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique that McCain has long denounced as torture. But incredibly, McCain doesn't want the CIA bound by the manual and its prohibitions.

'My Record Is Clear' on Torture, McCain Says

"I knew I would be criticized for it," McCain told reporters Wednesday in Ohio. "I think I can show my record is clear. I said there should be additional techniques allowed to other agencies of government as long as they were not" torture.

"I was on the record as saying that they could use additional techniques as long as they were not cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," McCain said. "So the vote was in keeping with my clear record of saying that they could have additional techniques, but those techniques could not violate" international rules against torture.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker noted that McCain believes that waterboarding is already banned by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which includes an amendment he himself wrote barring inhumane treatment of prisoners. The act prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for all detainees in U.S. custody, including CIA prisoners.

CIA Director Michael Hayden has said court decisions and current law, including the Detainee Treatment Act, cast doubt on whether waterboarding would be legal now. Hayden prohibited its use in CIA interrogations in 2006; it has not been used since 2003, he said. Justice Department officials have said they haven't resolved the legality of waterboarding since such legislation was passed.

The legislation bars the CIA from using waterboarding, sensory deprivation or other harsh coercive methods to break a prisoner who refuses to answer questions. Those practices were banned by the military in 2006.

McCain: Veto Preferable to 'Signing Statement' Against Bill a President Signs Into Law

President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation, which cleared the House in December and won Senate approval last week. But one supporter of the bill, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), warned Bush last week that if he vetoes the measure, he will, in effect, be "in favor of waterboarding."

But McCain said he'd rather see Bush veto the measure rather than sign it and then issue a "signing statement" outlining his objections to it. Such statements -- which Bush has used more than 700 times since he took office, far more than any of his predecessors -- have become highly controversial and of questionable constitutionality.

McCain said he would never issue a critical signing statement. "If I disagree with a law that's passed, I'll veto it," he said. "I think if you disagree with a law, you have a constitutional right to veto that, authority to veto that."

In this blogger's opinion, McCain's opposition to the anti-waterboarding bill makes no sense -- and his call on Bush to veto the measure is the height of hypocrisy for a man who was tortured for five years while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and who has made opposition to torturing prisoners of war a personal crusade.

Suddenly, a New Ethics Scandal for 'Mr. Straight Talk'

But the Arizona senator also faces accusations of being a hypocrite on lobbyists' influence on members of Congress. While this blogger has doubts about whether McCain's relationship with Iseman was of a romantic nature -- The Washington Post's own story on the scandal declined to say if the relationship was romantic -- it nonetheless does raise new ethical questions.

Soon after the Times article about his relationship with Iseman appeared, McCain advisers challenged its accuracy and questioned the newspaper's motivation.

"He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election," campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement.

The campaign also said that "John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity" and that "there is nothing in [the Times] story to suggest that John McCain ever violated the principles that have guided his career."

Some McCain advisers were convinced in 2000 that his relationship with Iseman, a partner at the Washington-based lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, had become romantic, the Times reported. The newspaper also said that Weaver wanted the senator to stay away from the lobbyist, who represented telecommunications companies with business before the Senate Commerce Committee that McCain led.

Iseman acknowledged meeting Weaver but denied a romantic relationship -- as did McCain -- and insisted she did not receive any special treatment from the senator's office, the Times reported.

One of McCain's senior advisers, Charlie Black, told CNN that the campaign first learned in October that the newspaper was working on a story about McCain's relationship with Iseman. By Thanksgiving, he said, there were "rumors all over town" that the Times was interviewing people.

Black said McCain's campaign and Senate staff spent "countless hours" providing information and documentation to the paper. He said that the information provided to the paper disputes suggestions McCain tried to use his influence to help Iseman's clients.

Conservative Broadcaster Paxson Contradicts McCain on Lobbying

In a related development, conservative broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson on Friday contradicted statements from the McCain campaign that the senator did not meet with Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Paxson's behalf.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Paxson said he talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona senator wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station.

Paxson, an evangelical Christian who founded the family-oriented PAX Television Network in the mid-1980s (now ION Television), also recalled that his lobbyist -- Iseman -- likely attended the meeting in McCain's office and that Iseman helped arrange the meeting. "Was Vicki there? Probably," Paxson told the Post. "The woman was a professional. She was good. She could get us meetings."

The McCain campaign said Thursday that the senator had not met with Paxson or Iseman on the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding," the campaign said in a statement.

But Paxson insisted to the Post on Friday that he remembered , "going there to meet with him." He recalled that he told McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."

Democrats Seek FEC Probe of McCain Campaign Loan

Meanwhile, Democratic national chairman Howard Dean called Sunday for campaign finance regulators to investigate whether McCain would violate money-in-politics laws by withdrawing from the primary election's public finance system.

McCain, who had been entitled to $5.8 million in federal funds for the primary, has decided to bypass the system so he can avoid spending limits between now and the GOP's national convention next September in Minneapolis.

Federal Election Commission Chairman David Mason notified McCain last week that he can only withdraw from public financing if he answers questions about a campaign loan and obtains approval from four members of the six-member commission. Such approval is doubtful in the short term because the commission has four vacancies and cannot convene a quorum.

"John McCain poses as a reformer but seems to think reforms apply to everyone but him," Dean said Sunday in a conference call with reporters. He said the Democratic National Committee will formally seek an FEC investigation today (Monday).

Part of the issue centers on a loan McCain obtained late last year. The loan was not directly secured by McCain's potential access to public funds. But his agreement with the bank required him to reapply for public funds if he lost early primary contests and to use that money as collateral.

McCain's lawyer, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, has said McCain did not encumber any money that he would have received from the federal treasury.

McCain and Potter have said he was entitled to withdraw without FEC approval and have cited as examples Dean and Democrat Dick Gephardt, both of whom withdrew from public financing during the 2004 presidential primary.

"Howard Dean's hypocrisy is breathtaking, given that in 2003 he withdrew from the matching funds system in exactly the same way John McCain is doing today," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said Sunday.

DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said Dean, unlike McCain, took out no loan that raised questions about his use of potential public funds.

If McCain were prohibited from withdrawing from public financing, he would be severely limited in his campaign spending for the next six months. Under campaign finance rules, he would be allowed to spend only $54 million; as of the end of January, his campaign had already spent nearly $50 million.

Unwanted Memories of the 'Keating Five' Scandal

Aside from its timing -- coming jsut as McCain is on the threshold of clinching the GOP presidential nimination -- the scandal is sure to bring back memories of McCain being dragged into the Keating Five scandal of the 1980s.

In the context of the savings and loan crisis of that decade, Charles Keating Jr.'s Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, a subsidiary of his American Continental Corporation, was insolvent as a result of some bad loans. In order to regain solvency, Lincoln sold investment in a real estate venture as an FDIC-insured savings account. This caught the eye of federal regulators who were looking to shut it down.

It was alleged that Keating contacted five senators to whom he made contributions. McCain was one of those senators and he met at least twice in 1987 with Ed Gray, chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, seeking to prevent the government's seizure of Lincoln.

Between 1982 and 1987, McCain received approximately $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates. In addition, McCain's wife, Cindy, and her father, James Willis Hensley, a wealthy Anheuser-Busch distributor, had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators.

McCain, his family and baby-sitter made at least nine trips at Keating's expense, sometimes aboard the American Continental jet. After learning Keating was in trouble over Lincoln, McCain paid for the air trips totaling $13,433.

Eventually the real estate venture failed, leaving many broke. Federal regulators ultimately filed a $1.1 billion civil racketeering and fraud suit against Keating, accusing him of siphoning Lincoln's deposits to his family and into political campaigns. The five senators came under investigation for attempting to influence the regulators.

In the end, none of the senators was convicted of any crime, although McCain was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising "poor judgment" in intervening with the federal regulators on Keating's behalf.

On his Keating Five experience, McCain said: "The appearance of it was wrong. It's a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators, because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do."

The question that this blogger has, however, is whether McCain can survive this newest scandal. No matter how hard his campaign tries to play it down, it's not going to go away any time soon.

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Volume III, Number 12
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.