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WASHINGTON — Waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques were not a factor in tracking down Osama bin Laden, a leading Republican senator insisted Thursday.
Sen. John McCain, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, also rejected the argument that any form of torture is critical to U.S. success in the fight against terrorism.
In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican said former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and others who back those tactics were wrong to claim that waterboarding al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, provided information that led to bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
McCain spoke with an unrivaled record on the issue.
He's the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee who consistently challenged the Bush administration and Vice President Dick Cheney on the use of torture and a man who endured brutal treatment during the Vietnam War.
He also made many of his points in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.
McCain said he asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and that the hunt for bin Laden did not begin with fresh information from Mohammed. In fact, the name of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, came from a detainee held in another country.
"Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information," McCain said. He called on Mukasey and others to correct their misstatements.
In a statement, Mukasey said McCain "is simply incorrect," on the bid Laden leads and interrogation.
Mukasey said Mohammed disclosed the nickname of the courier "along with a wealth of other information, some of which was used to stop terror plots then in progress." He said another detainee, captured in Iraq, disclosed that the courier was a trusted operative of Mohammed's successor.
Mukasey, who was President George W. Bush's last attorney general, said former intelligence officials have said that up to 2006 valuable leads came from prisoners who were subjected to harsh techniques, including waterboarding.
"Harsh interrogation techniques were both effective and lawful," Mukasey said.
Last week, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the U.S. got vital information from waterboarding that led directly to bin Laden.
McCain said he opposes waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, and any form of torture tactics. He said that they could be used against Americans and that their use damages the nation's character and reputation.
"I do not believe they are necessary to our success in our war against terrorists, as the advocates of these techniques claim they are," he said.
"Ultimately, this is about morality. What is at stake here is the very idea of America — the America whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that, no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not compromise our deepest values," he said. "We are America, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard. That is what is really at stake."
McCain did reject the idea of prosecuting any U.S. officials for using interrogation tactics in the past.
McCain's remarks drew immediate praise from several Democratic senators who have been at political odds with him in past campaigns.
"No one else in the Senate could have given this speech," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "He speaks with personal knowledge. He still remembers the most dark nights when he tried to rest, when he was tortured brutally."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said McCain's opinions may not be the popular view, but they were the right ones.
"Thank you for your leadership," Durbin said.