WASHINGTON – In a sharp rebuke to the White House, the Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would impose sweeping restrictions on interrogation methods used by the CIA and ban a condemned technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to feel he is drowning.
President Bush is expected to veto the bill, which would outlaw an array of coercive interrogation tactics that U.S. allies have denounced but the administration has claimed are critical to preventing terrorist attacks.
The measure, which already has passed in the House, would require the CIA to abide by interrogation guidelines adopted by the U.S. Army in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Because of the looming veto threat, the Senate vote was seen in some ways as a political showdown over one of the most divisive issues in the country’s response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Last week, the CIA confirmed it has used waterboarding and the White House said the technique could be authorized again – reigniting a controversy over human rights and national security.
Many Democratic lawmakers have denounced waterboarding as a form of torture that has undermined U.S. moral standing.
“To me, this is really a very big day,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsor of the provision that would limit interrogation methods. “Torture is out.”
But leading Republicans – as well as conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – have defended the legality of what the CIA refers to as “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
The decision by Republicans to allow a vote on the measure – forgoing procedural moves that could have blocked it from coming to the floor – suggested party leaders saw political advantage in avoiding the showdown and setting up a presidential veto. The bill was approved 51-45 in the Senate after passing the House in December, 222-199. Neither margin would be sufficient to override a veto.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed GOP nominee for president and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted against the measure, even though he is singularly identified with the issue of enlightened treatment of detainees.
McCain led earlier efforts in the Senate to ban cruel treatment of prisoners and has denounced waterboarding in presidential debates. But preserving the CIA’s ability to employ so-called enhanced interrogation methods has broad support in the party’s conservative base.
In a statement, McCain explained his vote against the measure by saying he believes waterboarding is illegal under existing U.S. law but does not want to bind U.S. intelligence officers to restrictions designed for the military.
“I believe that our energies are better directed at ensuring that all techniques, whether used by the military or the CIA, are in full compliance with our international obligations and in accordance with our deepest values,” McCain said.
The leading Democratic contenders for president, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, did not vote.