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Cheney Fights for Detainee Policy

Vice President Cheney has fought restrictions on handling of terrorism suspects, rules favored by other administration officials and senators.
Vice President Cheney has fought restrictions on handling of terrorism suspects, rules favored by other administration officials and senators. (By Stephen Morton -- Associated Press)

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that unconventional measures -- harsh interrogation tactics, prisoner abuse and the "ghosting" and covert detention of CIA-held prisoners -- have so damaged world support for the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign that they have hurt the U.S. cause. Also, they argue, these measures have tainted core American values such as human rights and the rule of law.

"The debate in the world has become about whether the U.S. complies with its legal obligations. We need to regain the moral high ground," said one senior administration official familiar with internal deliberations on the issue, adding that Rice believes current policy is "hurting the president's agenda and her agenda."

McCain's amendment would limit the military's interrogation and detention tactics to those described in the Army Field Manual, and it would prohibit all U.S. government employees from using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Cheney pushed hard to have the entire amendment defeated. He twice held meetings with key lawmakers to lobby against the measure, once traveling to Capitol Hill in July, to button-hole Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.), McCain and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

When that tack did not work -- 90 senators supported the measure -- Cheney handed McCain language that would exempt the CIA. Despite Cheney's concerns, Graham said he has not heard any concerns from the CIA suggesting it needs an exemption from the McCain amendment. The CIA declined to comment.

"It shows that we have a philosophical difference here," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The vice president believes in certain circumstances the government can't be bound by the language McCain is pushing. I believe that out of bounds of that language, we do harm to the U.S. image. It doesn't mean he's bad or I'm good; it just means we see it differently."

Cheney and the White House also oppose the language of a separate Defense Department directive, first reported by the New York Times, limiting detainee interrogations. The ongoing internal debate has stalled publication of the directive.

"This is the first issue we've gone to the trenches on," said a senior State Department official.

On the issue of the CIA's interrogation and detention practices, this spring Cheney requested the CIA brief him on the matter. "Cheney's strategy seems to be to stop the broader movement to get an independent commission on interrogation practices and the McCain amendment," said one intelligence official.

Beside personal pressure from the vice president, Cheney's staff is also engaged in resisting a policy change. Tactics included "trying to have meetings canceled ... to at least slow things down or gum up the works" or trying to conduct meetings on the subject without other key Cabinet members, one administration official said. The official said some internal memos and e-mail from the National Security Council staff to the national security adviser were automatically forwarded to the vice president's office -- in some cases without the knowledge of the authors.

For that reason, Rice "wanted to be in all meetings," said a senior State Department official.

Cheney's chief aide in this bureaucratic war of wills is David S. Addington, who was his chief counsel until last week when he replaced I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby as the vice president's chief of staff.

Addington exerted influence on many of the most significant policy decisions after Sept. 11, 2001. He helped write the position on torture taken by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, a stance rescinded after it became public, and he helped pick Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the location beyond the reach of U.S. law for holding suspected terrorists.

When Addington learned that the draft Pentagon directive included language from Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and cruel treatment, including "humiliating and degrading treatment," he summoned the Pentagon official in charge of the detainee issue to brief him.

During a tense meeting at his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Addington was strident, said officials with knowledge of the encounter, and chastised Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew C. Waxman for including what he regarded as vague and unhelpful language from Article 3 in the directive.

On Tuesday, Cheney, who often attends the GOP senators' weekly luncheons without addressing the lawmakers, made "an impassioned plea" to reject McCain's amendment, said a senatorial aide who was briefed on the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its closed nature. After Senate aides were ordered out of the Mansfield Room, just steps from the Senate chamber, Cheney said that aggressive interrogations of detainees such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed had yielded useful information, and that the option to treat prisoners harshly must not be taken from interrogators.

McCain then rebutted Cheney's comments, the aide said, telling his colleagues that the image of the United States using torture "is killing us around the world." At least one other senator, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), supported Cheney, as he has in public, the aide said.

Staff writers Charles Babington and Josh White contributed to this report.


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