PEMBERTON, N.J. — Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Friday sided with President Bush in condemning the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to grant access to federal courts for the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, potentially muddying his reputation as a critic of the administration's approach to treatment of suspected terrorists.
"We made it very clear these are enemy combatants," he told more than 1,000 supporters at a town hall meeting here, echoing the president's criticism of the court decision. "They have not, and never have been, given the rights of citizens of this country."
The presumptive GOP nominee then read from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s dissent in the case and predicted the courts will now be "flooded" with lawsuits from terrorism suspects.
"We are going to be bollixed up in a way that's terribly unfortunate," he said.
At a time when McCain is eager to distance himself from Bush on a variety of issues, the Supreme Court decision forces a public discussion in an area where he and the president fully agree. Both say allowing detainees access to U.S. courts will undermine the fight against global terrorism.
That discussion could be politically damaging for McCain, who has opposed the administration on the separate issue of how detainees should be treated. Moderates, key to McCain's strategy for winning the presidency, may be taken aback by what they perceive as a softening of the senator's stand against Bush's torture policy.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said voters probably will see a contradiction between McCain's efforts to prevent torture and close the Guantanamo detention facility and "his continued support for the underlying legal principle that Guantanamo stands for, namely that detainees should not have access to a normal judicial process."
Democrats, who use Bush's treatment of terror suspects as a way to motivate the liberal base, sought Friday to tie McCain to Bush. The liberal Center for American Progress criticized McCain for opposing the court decision merely because "it isn't what the Bush administration wanted."
McCain, who was tortured after he was captured in Vietnam, was the chief architect of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, a law that arose out of the revelations of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.
But there have always been two issues at stake: how to interrogate detainees and how to try them. On the issue of trying them, McCain has pushed for trials, but, like Bush, he has rejected calls from human rights groups and detainee lawyers to allow them in U.S. courts.