Before former Navy SEAL Eli Crane was pushing Arizonans to vote for Senator Marthy McSally in a new campaign ad, he was busy defending waterboarding and veterans who commit war crimes.
The ad, which was rolled out in early September by McSally's reelection campaign, spotlights Crane, who, in addition to being a veteran, is frequent media guest and CEO of Bottle Breacher, an Arizona-based company that sells "man-gifts" like bottle openers made out of .50 caliber bullets. The spot was dropped at a time when McSally is struggling to fend off Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, who has consistently been beating her in the polls.
The segment, titled "Forged in Fire," begins with Crane touting his own credibility as a veteran before laying into Kelly as lacking leadership while the nation reels from civil unrest. Images of people smashing storefront windows and protesters burning an American flag flash across the screen, as well as an image of Kelly and the all-caps text, "MARK KELLY BANKROLLED BY LIBERAL MOB."
"I’ve served with so many guys that put their life on the line for freedom," Crane says in the ad. "What I see going on in this country today just breaks my heart."
The ad pivots to B-roll of Crane walking with the senator, a former Air Force combat pilot.
"When things get tough, you want people who have walked through a storm, who have been forged in fire," Crane says, adding that voters should "all go out and support the candidate whose going to be a fighter when times get tough."
What the ad doesn't mention is the fact that Crane, who makes occasional appearances on Fox News, peddles in a variety of controversial opinions, from defending other veterans accused of heinous war crimes to seemingly dismissing the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crane did not respond to New Times' multiple requests for comment. Caroline Anderegg, a spokesperson for McSally's reelection campaign, also did not respond to requests for comment — including questions about whether the senator agreed with Crane's controversial views.
In 2018, he authored an editorial for Breitbart, a right-wing news outlet, in which he defended waterboarding, a highly controversial interrogation technique where water is poured over a cloth covering a captive's face to simulate the experience of drowning.
While President Donald Trump has expressed support for the practice, the technique is considered to be torture by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The late former Republican Arizona Senator John McCain, who was famously tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, condemned the practice before Trump's election in 2016. Congress has also taken steps to curb the use of waterboarding by the federal government.
Crane's editorial, published amidst the Senate confirmation process of Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, dismissed the severity of waterboarding. He argued that he and his peers "endured waterboarding, sleep deprivation, starvation, and much, much more" during training to prepare them for the possibility of being captured.
"We are not talking about pulling out fingernails or people’s teeth here. We aren’t talking about playing Russian roulette or chopping off hands or other extremities," Crane wrote. "We are talking about relatively mild interrogation techniques that I know to be relatively safe and effective because I have experienced many of them."
"As far as I’m concerned, if I can handle it and be just fine then I am OK with exposing our nation’s enemies to a little discomfort to make sure that we don’t lose more innocent American lives," he added.
David Lucier, a former Green Beret who served in the Vietnam War, member of the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame, and co-founder of VetsForward, a progressive veterans group, slammed Crane's position on waterboarding — and McSally's affiliation with him.
"He calls it 'relatively mild interrogation techniques' because he went through some training. It's torture," Lucier said. "I’m totally disgusted."
"McSally should know better. I think she should be ashamed for giving him that kind of a platform, Lucier added. "It’s shameful."
Crane has also expressed support for Eddie Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL chief who was accused of committing war crimes like intentionally shooting civilians and stabbing a captive ISIS fighter. Gallagher was eventually acquitted, and Trump reversed a Navy decision to oust him. A July 2019 Washington Examiner article quoted Crane as saying, "I'm relieved to see a friend and someone who has sacrificed a ton for our country walk away as a free man."
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"To hold Gallagher up as some kind of super patriot for the things he perpetrated while on active duty and representing the United States of America in a foreign country is to me just deplorable," Lucier said of Gallagher's alleged misconduct. "It’s a false patriotic statement, if you will."
In addition to military affairs, Crane has also lobbied some hot takes on the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, in a Youtube video shared by Dinesh D'Souza, a well-known conservative conspiracy theorist, Crane appears to dismiss media coverage on the COVID-19 pandemic and its severity.
“I don’t believe what they [the media] are spewing about this coronavirus, as they scare people into Kingdom Come," he said. "It’s unbelievable, and the reason I don’t believe the media, almost 95% of the time, is that I realized that they are not interested in reporting news anymore.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 200,000 people nationwide and more than 5,000 people in Arizona.