The Bush administration is supporting a provision in the House leadership's intelligence reform bill that would allow U.S. authorities to deport certain foreigners to countries where they are likely to be tortured or abused, an action prohibited by the international laws against torture the United States signed 20 years ago.
The provision, part of the massive bill introduced Friday by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), would apply to non-U.S. citizens who are suspected of having links to terrorist organizations but have not been tried on or convicted of any charges. Democrats tried to strike the provision in a daylong House Judiciary Committee meeting, but it survived on a party-line vote.
The provision, human rights advocates said, contradicts pledges President Bush made after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal erupted this spring that the United States would stand behind the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the Justice Department "really wants and supports" the provision.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said, "We can't comment on any specific provision, but we support those provisions that will better secure our borders and protect the American people from terrorists."
The provision is one of several items in the bill that Democrats say are unrelated to intelligence reform but Republicans say are important tools for fighting terrorists. The Senate is debating its own intelligence reform bill that does not include the provision, and the House bill is being marked up in several committees.
Human rights groups and members of Congress opposed to the provision say it could result in the torture of hundreds of people now held in the United States who could be sent to such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, all of which have dubious human rights records.
Supporters say the measure would provide a much-needed change to U.S. laws.
"Our laws are not up to date with the war we're fighting," Feehery said. In many cases, he said, the Justice Department "can't keep [terror suspects] in detention, they can't convict them, they don't want to try them. . . . If you can't detain them indefinitely, you sure don't want them in America."
The international anti-torture law prohibited the deportation of individuals to countries where there is a reasonable expectation that they will be tortured, abused or persecuted. U.S. immigration law permits non-U.S. citizens to seek political asylum to avoid such persecution and prohibits deportation or removal to countries likely to commit torture or abuse unless the government seeks assurance the country will not do so.
In 2002, the Justice Department, in a case that has earned international condemnation, approved the expedited removal of a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, to Syria, a country whose long record of torture has been criticized publicly by Bush.
Arar, who U.S. authorities have said they suspect of links to a terrorist group, alleges that his Syrian captors tortured him during his 375 days in prison. He disputes U.S. claims. Freed last year by Syria, he lives in Canada with his family and has never been arrested or charged with a crime by Canada or the United States.
"Is it an inconvenience if we can't send people back to torturers? Sure," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "But since Abu Ghraib, everyone from the president to the Defense Department to Congress has said the United States does not have a policy of torture. If this passes, we will have a policy of tolerating torture."
Under the Hastert bill, U.S. authorities could send an immigrant to any country, regardless of the likelihood of torture or abuse. The measure would shift to the deportee the burden of proving "by clear and convincing evidence that he or she would be tortured" -- a burden that human rights activists say is impossible to satisfy. It would bar a U.S. court from reviewing the regulations, which would fall under the secretary of homeland security.
The provision would apply retroactively, to people now in detention and those who may have already been secretly deported under classified procedures to countries with well-documented histories of torture and human rights violations.
It also would allow U.S. authorities to deport foreigners convicted of any felony or suspected of having links to terrorist groups to any country -- even somewhere that is not a person's home country or place of birth, contrary to current practice. The CIA already has such authority, under a secret presidential finding first signed by President Bill Clinton and expanded by Bush after Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA has taken an unknown number of suspected terrorists apprehended abroad to third countries for interrogation.
Also in the Judiciary Committee meeting, GOP members defeated other Democratic-sponsored attempts to strike provisions that would make it easier to deport or track terrorist suspects.
GOP leaders scrambled to appease disgruntled Republicans who said the chamber was moving too quickly -- and ignoring rank-and-file members -- in pushing the 335-page bill.
As several House committees addressed various portions of the bill, Republicans generally defeated Democratic efforts to sidetrack it. But in some cases, GOP members were the sharpest critics.
In the intelligence committee, three senior Republicans opened a daylong markup by attacking the bill. "It is a cobbled-together bill," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "It is a rush to judgment."
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) said, "We're fools to rush forward and pass something that has been worked on for only so short a time." Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) said, "This Congress appears to be rushing to implement reform on an election-year timetable."
With House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) taking the unusual step of temporarily filling a committee vacancy for the day, members soothed tempers, in part by accepting a handful of amendments. One, offered by Gibbons and backed by the panel's Democrats, would authorize a newly appointed national intelligence director to shift unlimited amounts of money from one purpose to another within agencies under the director's purview.
Hours later, Gibbons voted to send the amended bill to the House floor. Cunningham did, too, saying he had learned that the House Appropriations Committee was content with the bill's spending provisions. Most Democrats also endorsed the bill. Only two members of the intelligence committee -- LaHood and Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) -- voted against the measure.