John McCain on Friday described the decision by the Supreme Court to allow Guantánamo Bay prisoners to challenge their detention in US courts as “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country”.
The Republican presidential candidate said he agreed with the four dissenting justices on the nine-member court that foreign fighters held at the detention camp were not entitled to the rights of US citizens.
He criticised Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, for supporting the decision and said it highlighted the importance of nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court. His remarks represented a hardening of his position from his more moderate initial response to the ruling on Thursday, signalling a strategic decision by the McCain campaign to make it an election issue.
Mr McCain’s stance appeared designed to demonstrate his toughness on national security, while casting Mr Obama as soft on terrorists. It also looked calculated to spark debate on the future of the Supreme Court – one of the most important election issues for many conservative voters.
But his support for President George W. Bush’s position on Guantánamo risked undermining his appeal among moderates and reinforcing his association with the unpopular president.
Mr McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had previously sought to distance himself from Mr Bush on the treatment of detainees, arguing for Guantánamo to be closed and torture to be banned. He said he stood by those positions on Friday but insisted the Supreme Court ruling would weaken national security. “These are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they are not and never have been given the rights that the citizens of this country have,” he said. “Our first obligation is the safety and security of this nation and the men and women who defend it. This decision will harm our ability to do that.”