House vote backs McCain language on torture

A clear message to the administration that Congress supports the legislation Josh White, Charles Babington, Washington Post Thursday, December 15, 2005

Washington -- The House gave strong support Wednesday 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 terror.

On a 308-122 vote, members of the House supported specific language proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in the custody of the U.S. government.

Although lopsided, the vote does not put the language into law. Instead, 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 with it significant political weight.

The House also supported a McCain provision that would require officials in any Defense Department detention facility to follow interrogation standards in the Army's Field Manual. That manual is currently under revision.

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 would 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 from limiting interrogators' options.

Earlier in the day, McCain and President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, met in hopes of reaching a compromise on McCain's proposals, but no agreements were reached.

Congressional aides and U.S. officials said Wednesday that McCain had flatly refused Bush administration requests to modify the language he has proposed or to water down the impact of the torture ban.

The House vote indicates the administration may have lost some leverage.

With the Senate's 90-9 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 limits the president's authority to wage the war on terror.

"We cannot torture and still retain the moral high ground," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who called for the vote Wednesday. "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, Jim Marshall of Georgia.

Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-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 misinformation because the detainee "will tell you what he thinks you want to hear" to end the pain.

Jones said he believed 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 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

Despite McCain's unwavering stance, the White House continues to push for some level of exemption for officials working in the U.S. intelligence services and most specifically the CIA. Sources familiar with the negotiations said Wednesday that McCain and Hadley's one-on-one meetings over the past month had 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 military laws about following orders.

Defense Department officials have been debating the impact of McCain's language on intelligence operations, and officials largely agree that the measures 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 in the wake of numerous reported abuses.

McCain's language grew out of the Abu Ghraib abuses and the confusion that became apparent about the government's policies on the treatment of detainees. McCain -- a former POW who was tortured during the Vietnam War -- has been seeking to provide congressional clarity to armed forces and other U.S. officials who
interrogate prisoners.

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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