The U.S. Senate demanded a classified account on Thursday of whether the CIA was running a secret prison system as it debated a bill that would regulate the Bush administration’s treatment of military detainees.
The call was made following a newspaper report of such a prison network abroad, including facilities in Eastern Europe, that added to concerns in America and overseas about the fate of those held in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Senators also moved to deny detainees at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison the right to challenge their detentions with habeas corpus petitions in federal court, a step critics said could undermine efforts to secure their humane treatment.
Lawmakers said they could revisit the Guantanamo issue next week when they hope to complete a $491.6 billion package of defense and nuclear weapons programs.
The White House has threatened to veto the legislation because of an attached measure requiring humane treatment of terrorism suspects and setting rules for their interrogation.
The Senate voted 82-9 for director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to provide Congress’ intelligence committees with a classified “full accounting” on any clandestine prison or detention facility run by the U.S. government at any location where terrorism suspects were being held.
The Washington Post reported last week that the CIA had been holding and interrogating al Qaeda captives at secret facilities in Eastern Europe, part of a global covert prison system established after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said most lawmakers learned about the covert prisons from the newspaper and said his amendment was to “reassert congressional oversight.”
The administration has not publicly confirmed or denied the newspaper’s account and the House of Representatives said on Thursday it would investigate that disclosure and a number of other recent leaks of national security information.
Voting 49-42, senators backed an amendment to stem the court challenges from terrorism suspects at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (news, bio, voting record) argued that prisoners of war “have never had access to federal courts before.” He said the detainees mostly picked up in Afghanistan were clogging courts with challenges ranging from disputing the legality of their detention to the quality of their food.
The vote came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would decide whether Bush has the power to create military tribunals to put Guantanamo prisoners on trial for war crimes.
Several senators, including Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, argued that the habeas corpus change should be weighed more carefully.
Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union said with the amendment, “persons held at Guantanamo Bay would have no access to the courts to seek protection against government-funded torture, abuse or due-process violations.”
Defying the White House, the Senate has included regulations for treatment of military detainees in both this bill authorizing defense programs and a must-pass bill to fund the Pentagon and provide another $50 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The House of Representatives did not include the detainee rules in their versions of the bills, and the issue is expected to be fought out in House-Senate conferences.
Vice President Dick Cheney has worked behind the scenes to press Congress to exempt the CIA if it imposes detainee rules, arguing restrictions would impede efforts to get information to block acts of terrorism.
Democrats and a number of Republicans have rejected Cheney’s plan, saying it would be seen as a license for the CIA to engage in torture.