As recently as the fall of 2005, McCain, an ex-Navy pilot who endured torture in a North Vietnamese prison, was standing up to a Bush Administration eager to preserve America's “flexibility” in war-on-terror interrogations that had allowed such practices as painful shackling and “long standing,” induced hypothermia, mock executions, threats against families, and the infamous waterboarding, or simulated drowning. The “McCain Torture Amendment,” attached to a defense appropriations bill after numerous rounds of negotiations between McCain and the White House, was lauded as a ban on the kind of torture and abuse that had already taken place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere; it was also offered as proof of McCain’s independence and moral fiber. McCain himself went on the “Today” Show to say: “We got what we wanted, and that is the preservation of the Geneva Conventions. There will be no more torture. There will be no more mistreatment of prisoners that would violate standards of conduct we would expect of people who work for the United States of America.”

In fact, as my colleague Michael Roston and I wrote at the time in the Village Voice, the Arizona senator’s so-called torture ban left an enormous loophole: In its final form, the bill legislated a distinction between the rules to which interrogators from the U.S. military would be subjected, and those to be followed by the intelligence community. The CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies would, in particular, not face legal consequences if they suborned torture by a foreign military or spy service.

The torture “ban” was further weakened by an amendment introduced by South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham, which provided certain exemptions for Guantanamo and removed mechanisms for legal enforcement, and by a barely noticed presidential signing statement in which Bush re-asserted his right to interpret the law as he wished, and do what he deemed necessary to defend the United States. Intelligence historian Alfred McCoy has written that the Graham Amendment clears the road for “twisting this congressional ban on inhumane interrogation in ways that could ultimately legalize such acts.”

Some of the fruits of this policy were revealed earlier this month in a report by the Associated Press, detailing how “CIA and FBI agents hunting for al Qaeda militants in the Horn of Africa have been interrogating terrorism suspects from 19 countries held at secret prisons in Ethiopia, which is notorious for torture and abuse.” While denying that Americans had abused any detainees, the FBI's Richard Kolko was quick to insist that, “The prisoners were never in American custody.” A Human Rights Watch researcher described the conditions to which the detainees were subjected as comparable to a "decentralized, outsourced Guantanamo.” As noted in a March 30 report from Human Rights Watch, many of the detainees were fleeing the fighting in Somalia, and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, along with Ethiopia, Kenya, and the United States cooperated in the secret detention program. “Each of these governments has played a shameful role in mistreating people fleeing a war zone,” said HRW’s Africa Director. “Kenya has secretly expelled people, the Ethiopians have caused dozens to ‘disappear,’ and US security agents have routinely interrogated people held incommunicado.”

A story in last Sunday’s New York Times provided another, probably common, scenario when it described a scene at one of the new joint American-Iraqi security stations in Baghdad, set up as part of the new “surge” plan where a U.S. Army captain praised Iraqi soldiers after three suspects were captured and provided valuable information. According to the article, “What the Iraqis had not told them was that before handing over the detainees to the Americans, the Iraqi soldiers had beaten one of them in front of the other two, the Iraqis said. The stripes on the detainee’s back, which appeared to be the product of a whipping with electrical cables, were later shown briefly to a photographer, who was not allowed to take a picture.” An Iraqi captain told Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin, “I prepared him for the Americans and let them take his confession.”

With such scenarios undoubtedly playing out every day, unobserved by the media, how much of an issue will the United States’ new tolerance for torture be in the upcoming presidential elections? With even McCain showing his willingness to compromise for the sake of a political deal, don’t expect much from the rest of the Republican field. GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire earlier this week, faced a questioner asking whether the Bush Administration had gone too far in its resistance to the Geneva Convention in the war on terror. According to an account on the New York Times’ Caucus blog, Giuliani said: “There are people in this world that are organized, and they are organizing around the notion of coming here to attack us and kill us. The only way you’re going to stop this, the only way you are going to find out about it in advance, the only way you are going to prevent another September 11 from happening is by being aggressive.” According to the Times, “The only caveat he offered was that he is against torture and that wiretapping should be done within the law.” Speaking to voters in South Carolina earlier this month, Giuliani said that the only “timetable” in the war on terror depended on “when they stop planning to come here and kill us,” and expressed support for the Patriot Act and “intense interrogation of suspects, though not torture.”

But long before 9/11, while he was mayor of New York, Giuliani was widely accused of helping to create an atmosphere that permitted police brutality, including abuse of prisoners. What could you call the assault on Abner Louima, who was beaten and sodomized with a plunger in a Brooklyn precinct house, if not torture?

Other Republican candidates seem anxious to prove that they are just as tough as Giuliani. On a trip to Guantanamo last year, both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee said they thought the prisoners were well treated. Romney expressed sympathy for the rough conditions the troops lived under at the base. In a book, Huckabee later said, “These are not people who have any respect whatsoever for our laws, our culture, or our very lives. Most of them truly hate the United States of America and express their gladness when Americans are killed and their hope of more to follow.” The still-undeclared Senator Sam Brownback supported the Graham amendment that undermined McCain’s torture ban last year.

Democrats are somewhat more willing to declare a firm opposition to torture, though they have yet to make it a central issue in their campaigns. On April 13 and 14, all of the candidates were invited to meet with a group of retired admirals and generals to discuss U.S. detention and interrogation practices, in an event sponsored by Human Rights First and the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire. Only Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Dennis Kucinich met with the military leaders. (John Edwards accepted the invitation, but canceled due to the weather.)

The local Concord Monitor spoke with candidates following the little-reported, closed-door meetings. “I do not want to live in a country where I train the young women and men who defend this country on principles that I abhor,” Biden was quoted as saying. “Because they will come back to the United States of America, and I don't want that to be the core of my country. I don't want that to be who we are.”

Hillary Clinton is on record against torture: She said, in the Senate debate on torture last year, that “in the process of accomplishing what I believe is essential for our security, we must hold on to our values and set an example that we can point to with pride, not shame.” Barack Obama's New Hampshire press secretary, Reid Cherlin, told the Monitor in an email that Obama believes torture is not effective, “because those being tortured may lie to stop pain,” and that it causes hostility against Americans and puts U.S. troops at risk if captured. “Senator Obama believes this is not about them; it's about us," Cherlin went on. "Torture is just un-American. It's not who we are.” Dennis Kucinich, in November 2006 wrote, “Torture degrades us as a people… Torture breeds torture and brutality. Torture is a slope no American should step onto.’’ And trial lawyer John Edwards, in a recent entry on his blog, noted that “there is a principle in our system of justice that states it is better to let nine guilty men go free, than to punish one innocent man. We do not always live up to that ideal, but it is that goal that separates us from those who choose to attack us. The system of secret prisons, torture, and state sponsored kidnappings must end.’’

And finally, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has not directly addressed the subject, though he has said that “the United States once was--and again must be--a human rights example to which others aspire.”

Still, it would be surprising to hear any of the Dems consider the torture issue enough of a priority to raise it in their first debate. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee passed up a prime opportunity to grill Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—the architect of the Bush take on torture—on the subject during their recent hearings on the prosecutor-firing scandal.

For details on one of the practices that Gonzales—and Dick Cheney—think it is “quaint” to ban, and that most of the other candidates don’t yet deem worth mentioning, take a look at Wikipedia’s description of waterboarding. Then take a deep breath, and cast your vote.