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House Supports Ban on Torture
Measure Would Limit Interrogation Tactics
The House gave strong support yesterday to a measure that would ban torture and limit interrogation tactics in U.S. detention facilities, agreeing with senators that Congress needs to set uniform guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism.
On a 308 to 122 vote, members of the House supported specific language proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in the custody of the U.S. government. Though lopsided, the vote was largely symbolic and does not put the language into law.
The vote specifically instructed House negotiators to include McCain's language, word for word, in the fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill, a decision that is not binding but carries significant political weight.
The House also supported a McCain provision that would require officials in any Defense Department detention facility to follow the interrogation standards in the Army's field manual on interrogations. That manual is currently being revised.
The vote sends a clear signal to the Bush administration that both chambers of Congress support the anti-torture legislation and want the government to adopt guidelines that aim to prevent damage to the U.S. image abroad. The White House has been aggressively pushing to create exceptions for CIA operatives and to water down McCain's language to keep it from limiting interrogators' options. But it appears that the administration and House Republican leaders lost some leverage yesterday.
With the Senate's 90 to 9 vote in support of McCain's language earlier this year, both houses have presented veto-proof tallies to a White House that has vowed to strike down any bill that would limit the president's authority to wage the war on terrorism.
"We cannot torture and still retain the moral high ground," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who called for the vote yesterday. "No torture and no exceptions."
In all, 200 Democrats, 107 Republicans and one independent voted for Murtha's motion to instruct House negotiators. Voting against it were 121 Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Jim Marshall (Ga.). All eight House members from Maryland voted for the motion, as did eight of Virginia's 11 members. The three who voted against it were Republican Reps. Eric I. Cantor, Thelma D. Drake and Virgil H. Goode Jr.
Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (N.C.) was among the many conservative Republicans who voted for Murtha's motion. He said in an interview that experts have told lawmakers that harsh interrogation methods often produce misleading or false information because the detainee "will tell you what he thinks you want to hear" to end the pain.
Jones said he believes that extreme interrogation tactics resulted in some of the bad intelligence that led the administration to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the invasion.
McCain's language is also stalling the defense authorization bill, a policy-setting measure, as the White House continues to negotiate for exceptions and legal protection for interrogators who might unwittingly cross the proposed new lines.
"Unfortunately, we're in a situation now, post-Abu Ghraib, where restoring our image abroad is just as important as winning victories on the battlefield," said a congressional aide who is close to the discussions. "Our reputation has suffered so much that Republicans are willing to take steps that tie our hands in certain situations."
McCain and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met yesterday morning on Capitol Hill as part of the negotiations on McCain's anti-torture legislation.
Congressional aides and U.S. officials said yesterday that McCain has flatly refused Bush administration requests to modify the language he has proposed or to water down the impact of the torture ban.
Despite McCain's unwavering stance, the White House continues to push for some exceptions for officials working in the U.S. intelligence services -- specifically the CIA. Sources familiar with the negotiations said yesterday that McCain and Hadley's one-on-one meetings over the past month have centered on the White House's request for some level of legal protection from liability for CIA operatives should they be found in violation of the standards.
Such an exception would allow interrogators to use a defense that a "reasonable person" would not have thought their actions were illegal, similar to what is available under military laws on following orders.
Defense Department officials have been debating the impact McCain's language would have on intelligence operations, and officials largely agree that the provisions are consistent with existing policy. They would put into law Army doctrine, eliminating a commander's flexibility to change the rules -- something members of Congress have been seeking after numerous reported instances of abuse.
McCain's language grew out of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and the confusion that became apparent about the government's policies on the treatment of detainees. McCain -- who was tortured as a Vietnam prisoner of war -- has been seeking to provide congressional clarity to the armed forces and to other officials who interrogate prisoners.
A McCain spokeswoman said yesterday that negotiations are continuing and that he is opposed to any language that would undermine the intent of his provisions.
The impasse on the authorization bill is caused in part by Republican leaders being stuck having to make a difficult choice: Either go against the president and limit the use of some interrogation tactics or risk not having a National Defense Authorization Act for the first time in 45 years and in the middle of a war.
"I'm deeply disappointed that the Republican leadership has dragged their feet for weeks, unwilling to consider Senator McCain's language, which gained wide bipartisan support in the Senate," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"When America's servicemen and women are deployed in war zones, exposed to danger and possible capture, it is irresponsible to not make sure fundamental standards exist for the treatment of detainees," Tauscher said.
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