A Dangerous Veto Threat

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2005; 10:29 AM

It would be an understatement to say the war in Iraq has done little to bolster the perception of the United States around the world. But the administration's opposition to a provision that would ban the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody abroad risks sending the image of this country over another cliff -- as well as losing yet another opportunity to win the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East.

Raising the stakes for President Bush is the fact that his administration's position on the torture bill is at odds with prominent Republicans, most notably Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a Vietnam War hero who spent five years as a POW in Hanoi.

"If we are viewed as a country that engages in torture ... any possible information we might be able to gain is far counterbalanced by (the negative) effect of public opinion," McCain said on CBS's "Face the Nation" this week. He added that while "terrorists are 'the quintessence of evil,' it's not about them; it's about us. This battle we're in is about the things we stand for and believe in and practice. And that is an observance of human rights, no matter how terrible our adversaries may be."

Opponents of the provision, which McCain introduced as an amendment to the Defense Appropriation Act, are having a hard time making their case. The Senate passed McCain's bill by a vote of 90-9, with 46 Republicans including Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) in favor, despite the intense lobbying against it by Vice President Cheney.

Another decorated war veteran, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that he thinks "the administration is making a terrible mistake in opposing John McCain's amendment on detainees and torture. Why in the world they're doing that, I don't know. You've got 90 Senators out of 100 and that includes many Republicans opposed to it."

The bill codifies the Army Field Manual's rules prohibiting torture. The Senate rebuffed a number of entreaties from Cheney that would have watered down the measure, including an amendment that would have exempted the CIA from its provisions.

The issue now moves to conference, where the House must agree to place the measure in its version of the Defense Appropriation Act. Fifteen Republican House members--mostly from moderate northern or northeastern states--have signed a letter to the GOP House leadership urging the conferees do accept the McCain language and send it on to the White House.

"We strongly support President Bush's efforts to defeat terrorism and also believe that these provisions will play a crucial role in winning that struggle," the 15 Republicans wrote. "They will provide vital clarity about the values and standards by which America lives in contrast to our enemies. President Bush has said that America will stand firm on the non-negotiable demands of human dignity and will treat all detainees humanely. The Anti-Torture Provisions implement this pledge."

A long list of former high-ranking military officials has endorsed the McCain amendment as well.

These entreaties appear to be falling on deaf ears at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

On Sunday, a top-ranking White House official, refused to rule out the use of torture. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said on CNN that there were circumstances, such as an imminent 9/11-scale attack, when torture might be necessary.

"What happens if on September 7th of 2001, we had gotten one of the hijackers and based on information associated with that arrest, believed that within four days, there's going to be a devastating attack on the United States?" Hadley said, citing something that is commonly known as the "ticking bomb" scenario. "It's a difficult dilemma to know what to do in that circumstance to both discharge our responsibility to protect the American people from terrorist attack, and follow the president's guidance of staying within the confines of law. These are difficult issues."

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