WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain was applauded in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday morning when he ripped into protesters of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by calling them "low-life scum."
"I've been a member of this committee for many years, and I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place," said McCain, R-Ariz.
The protesters were part of the anti-war group CodePink. They rushed up behind Kissinger as he arrived along with two other former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and George Shultz, for a hearing on U.S. national security strategy.
The protesters held up signs calling Kissinger a criminal and chanted "arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes." The disruption lasted about two minutes.
"You know, you're going to have to shut up, or I'm going to have you arrested," McCain said as Capitol Hill Police tried to remove the protesters. "Get out of here you low-life scum."
Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon's secretary of state during the Vietnam War, didn't acknowledge the protesters, who again interrupted him later in the hearing before his opening statement. The protesters referenced the secret U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and other Nixon-era actions he was involved in.
"Dr. Kissinger, I hope on behalf of all of the members of this committee on both sides of the aisle — in fact, from all of my colleagues, I'd like to apologize for allowing such disgraceful behavior towards a man who served his country with the greatest distinction," McCain said. "I apologize profusely."
McCain, who served in Vietnam, has a personal connection to Kissinger and brought it up shortly after the protesters left. While McCain was imprisoned in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, Kissinger is said to have refused an offer to bring McCain home with him during final talks to end the war. As McCain tells it, Kissinger said he would be brought home in the same order as the other prisoners, knowing that to do otherwise would imply favoritism (McCain's father was a four-star admiral in the Navy).
CodePink issued a news release later in the day. In it, the group's co-founder Medea Benjamin was quoted, "CodePink is really proud of our action in the Senate today, speaking out on behalf of the people of Indochina, China, East Timor and peace-loving people everywhere.''
During his testimony, Kissinger cautioned against deeper U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and Ukraine without a better understanding of the potential consequences.
While the most immediate challenge is to defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, Kissinger said, "We must not let that degenerate into another war that we don't know how to end."
He also stopped short of endorsing a call by McCain for providing defense weapons to Ukraine's military as it battles Russian-backed separatists.
"I'm uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we'll do to sustain it," the 91-year-old Kissinger said.
Shultz, 94, who served under President Ronald Reagan, used the hearing partly to reminisce about the lessons of governing he said he learned from Reagan, with testimony that included recollections of the air traffic controllers strike of the 1980s.
His talk got off to a slow start when he neglected to push the button required to activate his microphone.
"You can see I'm out of practice," Shultz said. "I haven't been here for 25 years. I used to appear a lot."
At 77, Albright, a former United Nations ambassador as well as secretary of state in the Clinton adminstration, was the youngster of the group.
McCain, 78, the new committee chairman, has begun his tenure with a series of hearings featuring former top strategists discussing security challenges in preparation for assembling a new defense budget.
Like many Republicans in Congress, Kissinger and Shultz expressed concern that a potential nuclear deal with Iran could let the Islamic Republic continue to enrich uranium at low levels instead of halting all enrichment to eliminate the country's ability to develop nuclear weapons.
"The Iranians are not known as rug merchants for nothing," said Shultz, now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a policy research organization at Stanford University in California. "They're good bargainers. They've already outmaneuvered us."
Albright didn't comment on the possible outcome of the Iran talks, though she said efforts to impose additional costs on Iran such as sanctions should be postponed while negotiations proceed.
Breaking with the Obama administration, Albright joined Shultz in calling for the U.S. to provide Ukraine with weapons — a step the White House has so far resisted out of concern that weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
"We do need to help them defend themselves," said Albright, now a chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington-based consulting firm.
Kissinger, chairman of Kissinger Associates, said Ukraine should be an independent state and Russian troops should be withdrawn.
"But I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go," he said. "This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications."
Information from Bloomberg News (TNS) was included in this report.