The White House and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reached agreement today on a measure that would ban torture and limit interrogation tactics in U.S. detention facilities, a provision that the Bush administration had strongly resisted but that received broad support in Congress.
The agreement, announced after President Bush met with McCain and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) in the White House, came a day after the House overwhelmingly approved language supported by McCain that would prohibit “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in the custody of the U.S. government. The Senate approved the provision by a lopsided margin earlier.
“I’m very pleased that we’ve reached this agreement, and now we can move forward and make sure that the whole world knows that . . . we do not practice cruel, inhuman treatment or torture,” McCain said after the meeting with Bush in the Oval Office.
“We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists,” McCain said, “but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.” He said this would “help us enormously in winning the hearts and minds of people throughout the world in the war on terror.”
Bush said, “We share a common goal, and that is to protect the American people and to win the war on terror.” He said McCain “has been a leader to make sure that the United States of America upholds the values of America” in the battle.
The president said his administration had worked with McCain and others to ensure that the measure banning torture also provides “protections to those who are on the front line of fighting the terrorists.”
McCain said the agreement “puts into the Army Field Manual the specific procedures for interrogations” and “prohibits cruel, inhuman [treatment] or torture.”
He said the administration had raised “legitimate concerns” about the “rights of interrogators.” To address them, McCain said, the agreement borrows language from the Uniform Code of Military Justice about giving interrogators “legal counsel and certain protections that a reasonable person might view as carrying out of orders.” Referring to a landmark ruling in the war crimes trials in Germany following World War II, McCain said this provision would not “contradict the Nuremberg decision, which . . . said obeying orders is not a sufficient defense.”
Speaking to reporters outside the White House afterward, McCain said the next step is to put his amendment’s language in the House-Senate conference report of the fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill.
“I hope we can get this resolved in the next 24 hours so the House and Senate can vote on the conference report . . . and move forward,” McCain said.
Standing alongside the Arizona senator, Warner, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would “resume discussions” on the measure with Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I’m absolutely confident that this McCain legislation . . . will become finalized by the president’s signature in one form or another,” Warner said.
Pressure mounted on the White House to reach agreement with McCain after the House sided with senators who had previously decided that Congress should set uniform guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism.
On a 308 to 122 vote, the House yesterday supported the specific language proposed by McCain. Although lopsided, the vote was largely symbolic and does not put the language into law.
The House vote specifically instructed House negotiators to include McCain’s language, word for word, in the defense appropriations bill, a decision that is not binding but carries significant political weight.
The vote sent 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 had been aggressively pushing to create exceptions for CIA operatives and to water down McCain’s language to keep it from limiting interrogators’ options. But 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 chambers presented veto-proof tallies to a White House that had 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 also stalled the defense authorization bill, a policy-setting measure, as the White House continued to negotiate for exceptions and legal protection for interrogators who might unwittingly cross the proposed new lines.
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. The White House nevertheless continued yesterday to push for some exceptions for officials working in the U.S. intelligence services — specifically the CIA.
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.
The impasse on the authorization bill stemmed in part from the difficult choice facing Republican leaders: 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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