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.
Claims that McCain collaborated in other meaningful ways are also very questionable. McCain was noted for not participating in many of the staged events where his captors put cooperative prisoners on display, and perhaps most significantly, when repeatedly offered the opportunity to be sent home by his captors — which would have had substantial propaganda value — he refused to be released, unless other prisoners who had been held longer were released first. McCain's willingness to endure several extra years of torture when signing a few simple statements and cooperating would have gotten him sent home quickly, contrasts with many who others signed statements against the war, and were sent home, suffering no real consequences for their actions, while McCain insisted on staying almost to the end of the war.
Allegations that McCain was given special privileged treatment by his captors do have some basis in fact, but don't have the significance that some have tried to assign to them. Because McCain was the son of a prominent Admiral he was a very high value prisoner. As a result he did get more attention from the North Vietnamese as a potential propaganda tool, which meant putting him in nicer facilities from time to time to try to win his cooperation. Clearly these brief offers of special treatment didn't buy him off, because he kept getting sent back to the nastiest of the camps and ended up spending much of his last two years in captivity in a 2ft by 6ft hole delirious with starvation and heat exhaustion. McCain never spent significant time out of the worst camps as some have alleged. As demonstrated in his various memoirs, he can account for his time in considerable detail, always with other prisoners as corroborating witnesses to where he was and how he was treated. Among those supporting McCain's account of his experiences is Colonel Bud Day who has campaigned with McCain and is the most highly decorated living US serviceman and a Medal of Honor winner.
Suggestions that McCain informed on other prisoners also seem to have no merit to them. McCain has never been mentioned among those who other prisoners noted as informers or significant collaborators. In fact, when McCain returned from captivity he identified several other prisoners who were informants and initially wanted to charge them but was ultimately persuaded to go along with the unofficial policy of not pursuing any punishment for Vietnam POWs.
Other more outlandish accusations, like the claim that he is some sort of 'Manchurian Candidate' programmed by his captors as a weapon against America are so bizarre and speculative and completely lacking in evidence that there's no way to even respond to them intelligently.
Taken in context, McCain's level of cooperation with his North Vietnamese captors appears to have been at the low-middle range compared to other prisoners. While McCain did participate in some activities, sign statements and make at least one tape, he appears to have never really made the kinds of strongly anti-American statements which his captors wanted, rendering his contributions fairly worthless as propaganda material. In fact, his unwillingness to be forthcoming and fully participate is likely to have earned him substantial additional torture and punishment during his lengthy captivity. What's more, since no Vietnam POWs have been held accountable for their actions or violations of the code of conduct while in captivity, and since McCain wasn't even one of the dozen or so who were ever even considered for prosecution, trying to single him out as a notable collaborator makes no sense at all.
The attempt to use these elements of McCain's record as a POW against him seems like a particularly vicious and unjustified smear which reflects poorly on those who originated and have perpetuated these accusations.