By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The Senate voted yesterday to ban waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics used by the CIA, matching a previous House vote and putting Congress on a collision course with the White House over a pivotal national security issue.
In a 51 to 45 vote, the Senate approved an intelligence bill that limits the CIA to using 19 less-aggressive interrogation tactics outlined in a U.S. Army Field Manual. The measure would effectively ban the use of simulated drowning, temperature extremes and other harsh tactics that the CIA used on al-Qaeda prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
President Bush has vowed to veto the legislation, which the House approved in December, and Congress does not appear to have enough votes to override a veto.
House lawmakers, meanwhile, bickered yesterday over a Senate bill approved Tuesday that would permanently expand the government's ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects without warrants and would protect telecommunication firms from lawsuits for helping conduct such wiretaps. A temporary law that does not include the immunity provision is due to expire Saturday.
House Democrats had sought to extend the temporary law for 21 days to allow more time for debate, but the full chamber overwhelmingly rejected that idea by a vote of 229 to 191. Thirty-four Democrats joined Republicans in defeating the measure.
The outcome marked a notable victory for Bush, who had threatened to veto any delay and warned yesterday that "terrorists are planning new attacks on our country . . . that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled last night that debate over the bill is unlikely to end quickly and that Democrats may let the temporary law expire. Although Bush and his aides have said such a move would undermine current surveillance efforts and pose a national security threat, Democrats note that intelligence-gathering orders under the temporary law are good for a year and that routine surveillance powers would remain.
"The President and House Republicans refused to support the extension and therefore will bear the responsibility should any adverse national consequences result," Pelosi said in a statement.
In the Senate, the move to ban coercive techniques at the CIA follows two weeks of intense public debate over the agency's use of waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning, on three al-Qaeda prisoners in 2002 and 2003. It also comes in the same week that the Bush administration announced plans to try six prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Five of the six were subjected to harsh CIA tactics.
Congress banned any military use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics through the Detainee Treatment Act of 2006, which was co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), now the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
But McCain sided with the Bush administration yesterday on the waterboarding ban passed by the Senate, saying in a statement that the measure goes too far by applying military standards to intelligence agencies. He also said current laws already forbid waterboarding, and he urged the administration to declare it illegal.
"Staging a mock execution by inducing the misperception of drowning is a clear violation" of laws and treaties, McCain said.
The two Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), have said waterboarding is clearly illegal and should be banned, but neither voted yesterday because they were campaigning elsewhere.
A Justice Department senior official is expected to tell House lawmakers today that "there has been no determination by the Justice Department that the use of waterboarding, under any circumstances, would be lawful under current law."
The prepared remarks by Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the department's Office of Legal Counsel, for a Judiciary subcommittee hearing was obtained in advance by The Washington Post. It essentially reiterates the view of Mukasey, who testified last week that he had not analyzed the legality of waterboarding because it is no longer used. Neither answers the question of whether waterboarding would be legal now.
Human rights groups and civil liberties advocates argue that waterboarding amounts to illegal torture. "This legislation will ensure that the United States no longer employs interrogation methods it would condemn if used by our enemies against captured Americans," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First.
The Army manual forbids eight harsh techniques, including waterboarding, mock executions, use of beatings and electric shocks, forced nakedness and sexual acts, and causing hypothermia or heat injuries.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.