WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney made an unusual personal appeal to Republican senators this week to allow CIA exemptions to a proposed ban on the torture of terror suspects in U.S. custody, according to participants in a closed-door session.
Cheney told his audience the United States doesn't engage in torture, these participants added, even though he said the administration needed an exemption from any legislation banning "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment in case the president decided one was necessary to prevent a terrorist attack.
The vice president made his comments at a regular weekly private meeting of Senate Republican senators, according to several lawmakers who attended. Cheney often attends the meetings, a chance for the rank-and-file to discuss legislative strategy, but he rarely speaks.
In this case, the room was cleared of aides before the vice president began his remarks, said by one senator to include a reference to classified material. The officials who disclosed the events spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential nature of the discussion.
"The vice president's office doesn't have any comment on a private meeting with members of the Senate," Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Cheney, said on Friday.
The vice president drew support from at least one lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, while Arizona Sen. John McCain dissented, officials said.
McCain, who was tortured while held as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, is the chief Senate sponsor of an anti-torture provision that has twice cleared the Senate and triggered veto threats from the White House.
Cheney's decision to speak at the meeting underscored both his role as White House point man on the contentious issue and the importance the administration attaches to it.
The vice president made his appeal at a time Congress is struggling with the torture issue in light of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and allegations of mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States houses about 500 detainees at the naval base there, many of them captured in Afghanistan.
Additionally, human rights organizations contend the United States turns detainees over to other countries that it knows will use torture to try and extract intelligence information.
Cheney's appeal came two days before a former senior State Department official claimed in an interview with National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" that he had traced paperwork back to Cheney's office that he believes led to U.S. troops abusing prisoners in Iraq.
"It was clear to me there that there was a visible audit trail from the vice president's office through the secretary of defense down to the commanders in the field," Lawrence Wilkerson, a former colonel who was Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff during President Bush's first term, said Thursday.
Wilkerson said the view of Cheney's office was put in "carefully couched" terms but that to a soldier in the field it meant sometimes using interrogation techniques that "were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war." He said he no longer has access to the paperwork.
Cheney spokeswoman Jennifer Mayfield declined to comment on Wilkerson's remarks.
The Senate recently approved a provision banning the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The vote was 90-9, and an identical provision was added to a second measure on a voice vote on Friday.
Comparable House legislation does not include a similar provision, and it is not clear whether anti-torture language will be included in either of two large defense measures Congress hopes to send to Bush's desk later this year.
The White House initially tried to kill the anti-torture provision while it was pending in the Senate, then switched course to lobby for an exemption in cases of "clandestine counterterrorism operations conducted abroad, with respect to terrorists who are not citizens of the United States." The president would have to approve the exemption, and Defense Department personnel could not be involved. In addition, any activity would have to be consistent with the Constitution, federal law and U.S. treaty obligations, according to draft changes in the exemption the White House is seeking.
Cheney also has met several times with McCain, including one session that CIA Director Porter Goss attended in a secure room in the Capitol.