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Bush gives in, agrees to prohibit torture

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President Bush  speak to reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday  about the ban on all forms of torture on detainees held by the U.S. military.
 (AFP/Getty Images / The Spokesman-Review)
John Diamond USA Today

WASHINGTON – After fighting the proposal for months, the White House relented Thursday and agreed to an anti-torture amendment by Sen. John McCain that bans “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees and applies to the CIA as well as military interrogators.

A White House official and a congressional aide, both speaking on condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to pre-empt an expected public announcement by President Bush, told the Associated Press of the deal.

“Today’s agreement by the White House and congressional leaders means that interrogators will be given clear, unambiguous rules to follow,” said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “This will lead to more effective interrogations, which are vital to eliciting actionable intelligence about the plans of our enemies.”

The White House first threatened to veto any bill that contained the measure proposed by McCain, R-Ariz, then tried to gain an exemption for CIA interrogators, who are usually responsible for questioning the highest-ranking terrorist captives.

But McCain’s proposal passed the Senate by a 90-9 vote in October and the House endorsed it Wednesday by an equally veto-proof 308-122 margin.

That gave McCain strong bargaining power against last-minute efforts by national security adviser Stephen Hadley to include language to partially shield interrogators from criminal and civil prosecution.

In the end, the only concession McCain made was to afford CIA interrogators the same protections as their military counterparts, according to the congressional aide.

That protection says that someone accused of violating interrogation rules could avoid conviction by showing that a “reasonable” person could conclude that the accused was following a lawful order in conducting the interrogation.

Although there are already laws and treaties against torture, the McCain amendment adds clarity to a situation left fuzzy by overriding White House and Justice Department opinions. Specifically, the McCain measure applies the torture ban to all detainees regardless of where they are held or whether their status is that of a prisoner of war or a terror suspect.

Former CIA field officer Milton Bearden said in an interview that the agreement ended the Bush administration’s “incomprehensible” opposition.

“No matter how you want to parse the sentences on this, to the world it was: The White House wants to torture people and some other Americans don’t want to. End of story,” Bearden said.