Knight Ridder News
WASHINGTON - President Bush reversed course Thursday and accepted a Senate-approved measure to ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of terrorist suspects by U.S. interrogators.
The deal appeared to be a clear victory for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the proposed ban, and a setback for Vice President Dick Cheney and others who had argued that the ban would hurt U.S. efforts to glean information from detained terrorist suspects.
The White House agreed to McCain's ban after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed it Wednesday, and McCain said he would reword it to make it clear that interrogators from the Central Intelligence Agency would have the same rights as military interrogators to defend themselves against abuse charges.
"There were legitimate concerns raised by the administration concerning the rights of interrogators," McCain said during an Oval Office session with Bush and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the deal was made public.
McCain said the new wording would take language from the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows accused soldiers to argue that they thought they were obeying legal orders and apply it to CIA interrogators as well. McCain said the wording wouldn't contradict precedents from World War II military trials that "obeying orders is not a sufficient defense."
House and Senate officials said the McCain provisions were likely to remain in the must-pass $453 billion defense spending bill that provides $50 billion for the Iraq war and that Congress planned to approve before adjourning for the year.
"Today's agreement by the White House and congressional leaders means that interrogators will be given clear, unambiguous rules to follow," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee. "The fog of law is finally lifting. America's moral black eye is finally healing."
Congress had overwhelmingly backed the ban. The Senate approved it in October by a 90-9 margin. On Wednesday, the House instructed its conference committee negotiators to adopt the Senate proposal by a lopsided margin of 308-122, with 107 Republicans voting with the majority.
Thursday's agreement brought to an end a dramatic showdown between the Republican-led Congress and Bush over who sets rules for the treatment of suspected terrorists.
McCain's provision would bar inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody and limit interrogation techniques for U.S. troops and operatives to those listed in the Army field manual.
The White House in September threatened to veto the measure, saying it would hurt the war on terror, and Cheney personally lobbied against it, arguing that CIA operatives should be exempt from its provisions.
But McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, continued to press for the measure. With controversy continuing to rage around allegations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the deaths of some prisoners after they were questioned in Afghanistan, Republican leaders in Congress dropped their opposition.
Still, it took several weeks of negotiation before the White House agreed to accept the McCain measure.