McCain's Bermuda Triangle
Just six months after being rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising "poor judgment" when he interfered with federal regulators on behalf of a wealthy donor, Senator John McCain engaged in activities that may have constituted an abuse of his office for personal gain. In August 1991, McCain hosted a family reunion at the Bermuda Naval Air Station (BNAS) for at least seven days at taxpayer expense. McCain's entourage of eleven included his wife, Cindy, and several of his children. The trip took place as Washington was still dealing with the fallout from the Keating Five scandal, an episode that involved other improper luxury Atlantic-island trips for McCain.
McCain's junket to BNAS was first reported by ABC's Primetime Live in a postscript to a December 1992 story on Senior Petty Officer George Taylor, the whistleblower who exposed the use of the Navy base by top officials for nongovernmental purposes. A March 1993 Navy Inspector General report, precipitated by the Primetime Live segment, as well as a BNAS log record and a new interview with Taylor corroborate and amplify the substance of ABC's story.
The Navy IG report, obtained by The Nation and never before made public, redacts the name of the "one U.S. Senator" who used BNAS as a "vacation site." But in an interview with The Nation, Taylor, who was stationed at BNAS from May to November 1992, confirms that the senator in question was John McCain. A log book from BNAS, also obtained by The Nation, lists McCain as the only senator to have stayed on the island between 1989 and 1992.
In his interview, Taylor now recounts a conversation he had with a military psychiatrist who examined Taylor in 1992 for a psychiatric evaluation ordered by his supervisor in the wake of the Primetime Live show, in an apparent act of retaliation for his whistleblowing. The anecdote raises the disturbing possibility that McCain's Senate office attempted to influence the outcome of Taylor's psychiatric evaluation.
In his 2002 memoir, McCain declared that he had learned from his mistakes in the Keating Five affair, writing, "I have carefully avoided situations that might even tangentially be construed as a less than proper use of my office." But this most recent disclosure casts doubt on that claim.
"It was a family reunion...and the guests included grown children from a prior marriage...and minor children...a baby and a nanny," the IG report says of the McCain family vacation--some aspects of which may have violated the law.
Taylor, who had been highly decorated for his service aboard the USS Antietam, was the chief of military police at BNAS, commanding a staff of about seventy MPs. Shortly after his arrival at BNAS, he came to recognize that rather than serving a strategic military purpose, the base functioned mainly as a taxpayer-subsidized vacation spot for high-ranking officials.
"We're not running a military installation," Taylor told ABC. "We're running a Howard Johnson's."
In accordance with Taylor's claims, the IG report counted an inordinately high number of officer and VIP visits for a base that had one plane and no ships, and that was, according to ABC, "a cold war military relic that has outlived its usefulness."
"The tally for our two-year period was 80 flag/general officers [admirals and generals] and 99 0-6's [captains or colonels]," the IG report said, in addition to a number of other VIP visitors, one of whom was McCain.
According to the report, McCain's trip was likely also the largest to the installation, as it was "the only identifiable case in which a visiting VIP...and guests required accommodations over and above the quarters" normally made available to visitors.
The operation at "Club Fed," as it was called by the MPs, was not cheap. The IG report estimates the cost for military flights to the island at about $6,000, but Taylor and other MPs say this doesn't account for indirect costs like maintenance, salaries and hangar space, which they believe bring the expense closer to $40,000 per flight. Taylor also learned that funds were diverted from security operations and poured into hospitality, and the Primetime Live segment reported that $53,000 was used to redecorate one of the guest cottages on the base in 1992.
Both the IG report and the Primetime Live segment make clear that military officers or military retirees--like McCain--and their dependents had been entitled to stay in BNAS guest quarters on a space-available basis. But their visits crossed the line when other military resources were used for nonofficial purposes.
And that's what happened on just about every trip, according to Taylor. "Once they arrive they have the government vans here, which provide the transportation. They have the drivers, maid service," Taylor told ABC in 1992.
"Sailors had been assigned to be [Cindy McCain's] driver, and they carried her bags after she went shopping at the expensive shops on the island," says Taylor now. "It's like they were her servants." Taylor, who was not at the base when McCain visited but had been extensively briefed about it by subordinates, said this situation was not unique to Mrs. McCain. "That was the case for admirals and generals and other high-ranking officials that were coming into the installation for supposed military and governmental purposes."
Taylor believes that this use of military resources violated the law. According to Title 31 USC 1349 Section B, it is illegal if an officer or employee of the US government "willfully uses or authorizes the use of a passenger motor vehicle or aircraft owned or leased by the United States Government (except for an official purpose...)."
Taylor told The Nation that he spoke up in part about the waste and abuse in Bermuda because he had seen a disturbing pattern. "They were closing all these bases stateside--like in Alabama, where I'm from, and good people were losing their jobs. And then, here's one that everyone's using, going to do their golfing weekends."
The conclusions in the IG report are also redacted, and it is not clear what the consequences of the report were or if McCain faced any reprimands or sanctions. Calls to McCain's campaign were not returned. But because of Taylor's disclosure and the ABC report, BNAS was shuttered in 1995 after the Navy conducted another investigation that showed that the base was not serving any military purpose.
There was other fallout as well. Shortly after Taylor blew the whistle, he was removed from his duties on the island. One month before the Primetime Live episode aired, he was ordered by his commanding officer to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Taylor had been a stellar serviceman, having received multiple commendations and superior evaluations and having exhibited no symptoms of psychological distress. He believes that the psychiatric evaluation was a punitive measure. "I don't think it's a coincidence at all," he told ABC. But his commanding officer, Capt. James Arnold, denied this to ABC.
In fact, the military had used psychiatric evaluations to discredit and stifle whistleblowers before. At the time, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) had been pushing Congress for years to address this type of abuse. According to GAP lawyer Tom Devine, "Taylor's ordeal was the straw that broke the camel's back"; in late 1992 Congress passed the Boxer Amendment to curb the use of mental health evaluations as retaliation against whistleblowers, though the practice still occurs.
In November 1992, Taylor was packed onto a jet and ordered to appear at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, to see psychiatrist Peter True and undergo a "fitness for duty examination." Dr. True evaluated Taylor on November 13 and arrived at the following diagnosis: "No psychiatric diagnosis at this time. 1) Patient is psychiatrically fit for duty. 2) He is fully responsible for his actions. 3) This is not a psychiatric problem. This is a problem between this member and his employer and needs to be worked out as such. There are no psychiatric contraindications to any administrative or legal action. 4) No psychiatric follow-up indicated."
According to Taylor, True also told him at the time, "You've really upset a lot of people." When Taylor asked the doctor what he meant, True replied, "I've been contacted before, but never in advance by a fleet commander's staff, a senator's staff and the secretary of the Navy's staff to try and influence my evaluation."
Neither McCain's office nor True responded to The Nation's requests for an interview to determine whether McCain's staff contacted True and attempted to influence the outcome of Taylor's psychiatric evaluation. But it was McCain's office that had reason to intervene.
According to the official "VIP Log Book" on the island, McCain was the only senator to have stayed on the island between 1989 and 1992.
McCain had also been a classmate at the Naval Academy of Adm. Henry Mauz, who was heavily implicated in the BNAS scandal. Admiral Mauz had used the excuse that he'd been conducting official business on the island, but a Pentagon official said of one of Mauz's junkets, "It was a golfing trip. That's why he got in trouble. It was allegedly a training trip, but they ended up golfing the whole time."
Tom Devine, one of Taylor's lawyers from the Government Accountability Project, speaking in an independent capacity, hopes for a more comprehensive and transparent inquiry into McCain's involvement in the matter.
"It was Senator McCain who made character an issue for the election. He says that Senator Obama should answer questions about associations from his distant past so that we can make a fair assessment about his character. But Senator McCain has some troubling questions to answer about his own behavior," says Devine. "It's one thing to go on a junket. It's another thing to have taxpayers finance a family reunion."