As the political campaign intensifies, we're beginning to see a lot of very harsh accusations directed at the candidates from radical groups acting as surrogates for the two presidential candidates. Typically, these accusations originate in a blog post or an article on one of the more politically radical activist websites, or even as a viral email sent from person to person and reposted on newsgroups and in online discussions. It's often hard to track down their origins or who is specifically responsible for them, but the ultimate result is that their largely unsubstantiated claims eventually get picked up and widely repeated in some form on more legitimate news-oriented websites or even in the mainstream media.
Perhaps at least partially in retaliation for the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on John Kerry's military record, the attacks from the political left include many alarming allegations about John McCain's war record. One of these is that while John McCain was a prisoner of war he became a 'songbird' and violated the military code of conduct by informing on other prisoners, providing the enemy with information about US troop deployments, participating in enemy propaganda campaigns and even engaging in 30 or more radio broadcasts favorable to the North Vietnamese and designed to demoralize US troops. These accusations have become increasingly widespread and have appeared on relatively legitimate sites like Politico.com as well as on left-leaning talk radio.
As was the case with the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on John Kerry, these allegations about McCain contain elements of truth, plus a great deal of misinformation and pure misrepresentation and distortion of his actions and their significance.
McCain was a prisoner of war for over five years and during that time he was subjected to successive rounds of just about every kind of torture imaginable, made worse by the injuries he sustained when he crashed his plane, and which never properly healed. The North Vietnamese violated every rule of the Geneva Convention in their treatment of prisoners and put a very high emphasis on getting what they could out of prisoners for propaganda purposes, such as confessions of war crimes or statements opposing the war. McCain was a particular target for these efforts because he father was commanding Admiral of the Pacific Fleet at the time. Under those conditions many prisoners cooperated to some extent with their captors. Some engaged in propaganda, most notably the eight prisoners famous for their meetings with US war protesters at the Hanoi Hilton. Others were less cooperative, and were punished for it. Some tried to escape and in many cases were killed for it as object lessons to the other prisoners.
Under the military Code of Conduct established after World War II, prisoners were only supposed to provide their name, rank and service number. Almost no prisoners in Vietnam observed that requirement to the letter. Yet after the war, the military ended up making the decision not to prosecute any of the Vietnam era prisoners of war, even those who had collaborated extensively or who had informed on other prisoners, on the basis that the level and duration of the torture to which they had been exposed rendered the code of conduct impractical to enforce. The code of conduct was effectively suspended retroactively for Vietnam POWs.
Despite the recent accusations that he was a collaborator, most of the evidence suggests that McCain's cooperation with the North Vietnamese was very limited, which likely resulted in considerable additional hardship for him. Although McCain has himself admitted to signing some statements which were apparently never used as actual propaganda and to participating in the recording of a propaganda tape, indications are that he was not sufficiently forthcoming in these statements and that the North Vietnamese propaganda ministry found him troublesome and unhelpful, limiting his participation to general and ambiguous statements.
Claims that McCain made over 30 propaganda recordings appear to be exaggerated and the evidence to support these claims is very sketchy and almost entirely anecdotal. McCain admits to having made a tape, but there is little evidence that it was ever used and in it he may not have been forthcoming enough for the tape to be useful as propaganda. Evidence of more recordings cannot be substantiated because no one has actually gone through the hundreds of hours of poor recordings of North Vietnamese propaganda broadcasts which have been archived to catalog what is actually in them. So those who claim that McCain was actively involved in propagandizing for his captors are mostly just guessing or making it up based on very little real evidence.