Crhymethinc first brought my attention to a story about 32 propaganda films or tapes supposedly made by Senator McCain while imprisoned in North Vietnam. If I recall right, he's mentioned the number in some postings here. There has to be some source for a number that precise, so I decided to find it.
A Google search of the name "McCain" and the exact term "32 propaganda" nets 2,360 results. Most of these websites date from the past year. Many of those refer to an article from a publication called Prison Planet in which a former Phoenix policeman, Jack McLamb, claims that McCain was never tortured while in prison and was known by prisoners and guards alike as "Songbird" because of his readiness to give up information to his captors. I couldn't find the story in its original form at either Prison Planet website, but it's available here. McLamb and Prison Planet host Alex Jones are declared enemies of the "New World Order." Jones himself is a 9-11 skeptic who has elicited supportive comments from such radio guests as Willie Nelson, Charlie Sheen and Jesse Ventura. McLamb's evidence is indirect; he was not imprisoned with McCain, but claims to have heard the "Songbird" story and the 32 "video" count from men who were. McLamb also claims that the U.S. has copies of these "videos," which are now classified.
Shortly before McLamb's interview appeared in February, Mark Lowry published an article entitled Hanoi John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate? Lowry claims that McCain bargained with the Vietnamese government once he became a Senator, threatening to deny them "preferred trading partner status" if they ever released the propaganda tapes. He accuses Senator Kerry of collaborating with McCain to cover up the latter's traitorous record. He cites no sources for either charge, nor for the 32 videos. Lowry appears to share McLamb and Jones's concern about the New World Order, with special emphasis on the subject of immigration. But rather than raise questions about the messenger, we need to know where Lowry got this particular message.
Digging deeper brought me to this post, which points to a CounterPunch article that appears to take the story back as far as 1992. The topic came up during a Senate select committee hearing on POWs and MIAs. A retired corporal, Bob Dumas, told reporters that McCain didn't want the record of his debriefing following his release from captivity made public because "a lot of the POWs that was in the camps said he was a collaborator of the enemy. " The specific number comes from someone named Tracy Usry, who said: "Information shows that he made over 32 tapes of propaganda for the Vietnamese government. Certainly, you do what you need to do to stay alive. Nobody would fault anybody for that. But there comes a point in time when enough is enough." After the hearings, then-Rep. Bob Dornan tells an early version of the story mentioned by Lowry, quoting McCain to the effect that “If you release any of these records that you have here in Hanoi on me or the other POWs, you will NEVER get diplomatic recognition.”
The next step is to go directly to the 1992 hearings and see if anyone can substantiate the collaboration stories. Tracy E. Usry, it turns out, was a Special Investigator for the minority (Republican) staff on the select committee. McCain served on the committee and had a testy exchange with Usry in 1991 when the investigator testifed that American POWs in Vietnam were interrogated by Soviet officers. McCain denied this. According to this article, witnesses ranging from fellow POWs to Vietnamese and Soviet veterans contradicted McCain. The article cited here was posted in 1999, as McCain was prepping for his first presidential run. It references a 1992 article from the publication U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which may be the first to label McCain a "Manchurian Candidate." This piece accuses McCain of "declar[ing] his own personal war" on POW/MIA activists, including Ross Perot. It also accuses McCain of lobbying to have Usry and other investigators fired after the hearings. It does not propose any number of propaganda films or tapes, but asks why McCain, then completing his first term as a senator, had seemingly flip-flopped from understandable hatred of the Vietnamese Communists to pushing for improved relations while denigrating POW/MIA activists.
The "32" number seems to begin with Tracy Usry in 1992. His comment wasn't part of the select committee testimony, but was made outside chambers. He has been quoted ad infinitum as saying "information shows" that McCain made 32 films or recordings, but to my knowledge Usry never showed his information. No count of "propaganda" performances by McCain, voluntary or involuntary, comes close to this number.
According to this source, the American media was calling McCain a "songbird" as early as the summer of 1969. As far as I know, the Daily News article cited hasn't been posted on the Internet, but anyone with microfilm access to New York City newspapers should be able to track it down easily enough. McCain himself has always admitted participating in propaganda, though never on the scale claimed by his critics. To his own shame, he wrote out a confession that he was an "air pirate" and a "black criminal." Here's a more mainstream source on McCain's POW years, with an emphasis on his own memoirs.
This video from the organization Vietnam Veterans Against McCain sums up their grievance with him, including Usry's "over 32" charge.
And here is McCain himself in some raw C-SPAN footage from the hearings. This illustrates the tempers involved in the issue, including the defensiveness on McCain's part that critics wondered at, but we may recognize as typical of the man when someone questions his integrity.
I can't help but mistrust the veterans' organization as a source, since they begin with a conspiracy theory of a kind -- the notion that Vietnam was still holding live American captives as late as 1992 -- and thus resort to conspiracy theory to account for McCain's refusal to support their agenda. In retrospect, McCain's apparent flip-flop on Vietnam appears consistent with his political career. To win the 2008 nomination, he flip-flopped from positions taken in 2000 -- when his veteran accusers tended to support George W. Bush. Some say he flip-flopped or was converted to the neocon foreign policy during the 1990s. He may well want to suppress the transcripts critics are worried about, but that may be due to mere pride and fear of humiliation rather than fear of incrimination.
Crhymethinc has said that the real issue isn't the number of films or broadcast McCain may have made, or their content, but the fact that McCain was unwilling to take the one step that could prevent his captors from making any propaganda use of him -- killing himself. According to the Arizona Republic story, however, McCain did try to hang himself once, though once might not suffice for some critics. For my part, I had been under the impression that McCain was helpless when he parachuted into the lake, and could not have killed himself before capture even if he wanted to. The article tells me otherwise, reporting that McCain swam to the lake's surface and was inflating a life preserver when he was captured. I'm not sure what difference that makes, but Crhymethinc's view, as I understand it, is that McCain cannot send young men to their deaths, or should not be allowed to, so long as he was unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice himself. I can't agree with that, since the Constitution allows someone who has been a lifelong civilian, never putting his life in peril, to become commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the power to send them to their deaths with Congress's consent, so long as the people elect him. But there are reasons enough beyond this debate to deny McCain the chance to start another war. The 32-propaganda-tape charge against him is ultimately a sideshow, less a "swift-boating" (since Democrats seem to have steered clear from it for the most part) than a conspiracy theory that's almost guaranteed to be unverifiable. If anyone in the Obama campaign or the Democratic National Committee thought it could be a silver bullet that could destroy McCain, we'd have heard much more about the story than most people have so far. But people who spend a lot of time on the Internet are bound to stumble upon the story, or a version of it. My own contribution may not resolve anything, but I hope it helps to clarify the story.