Bush reverses stand, accepts ban on torture of detainees

McCain proposal had strong backing in Congress from both parties

December 16, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- After resisting for months, President Bush caved in to Sen. John McCain yesterday and said he would accept a formal ban on torture or inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world.

The agreement represented a rare reversal for Bush on his signature issue: protecting the U.S. from terrorism. It also marked a rare rebuke of the president from his own Republican Party, which largely fell in line behind McCain, a former prisoner of war and torture survivor with unassailable authority on the subject.

McCain's push for the torture ban had drawn overwhelming support from senators and representatives from both parties in Congress, who expressed concern that the United States' moral authority in the rest of the world had eroded as a result of abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and other reported misconduct.

The White House had resisted a formal ban, arguing that existing law forbade torture. Administration officials had also expressed concern that a ban would undermine U.S. personnel interrogating terrorist suspects, because detainees would fear them less.

`Sent a message'

McCain, a Republican from Arizona, argued that those concerns were outweighed by the damage already suffered to U.S. standing around the world and increased danger to captured U.S. service members, who would be more likely to face torture at the hands of terrorists or other enemies.

"We've sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists," McCain said at the conclusion of an Oval Office meeting with Bush in which they sealed the deal. "We have no brief for them, but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are."

After long weeks of tough negotiations, the president and his top advisers won two concessions from McCain: that interrogators accused of using improper methods could offer as a defense that they were acting on orders that a reasonable person would believe to be lawful, and that the U.S. government would pay their legal fees.

Originally, the White House, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, had sought an exception from the law for CIA interrogators or other assurances that interrogators would not face prosecution.

That concession from McCain was not enough to win over House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, who supported the White House push for broader protections and said he would not accept the compromise as part of his committee's defense spending bill without further assurances.

"The language is agreed. The vehicle by which it is going to get enacted by the Congress is still being worked," said National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who was the chief White House negotiator with McCain.

Hadley downplayed the difficulty of the negotiations, which began in October after McCain's amendment was adopted 90-9 by the Senate. It was endorsed this week in a nonbinding measure in the House by a vote of 308-122.

"The discussion has been less of the text of the McCain amendment as it was originally submitted, and more discussion about the protections for the men and women, both in uniform and civilians, who are engaged in activities involving detainees and interrogations," Hadley told reporters.

McCain had insisted that no U.S. personnel should be granted immunity from prosecution under this law. However, in the compromise with the White House, he agreed to permit civilians, such as CIA officers, to employ the same defense allowed to military officers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: that their actions were officially authorized and believed to be lawful.

The amendment states that "it shall be a defense that such officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces or other agent did not know that the practices were unlawful and a person of ordinary sense and understanding would not know the practices were unlawful." It also said that "good faith reliance on the advice of [legal] counsel" should be taken into consideration.

In the Oval Office meeting, there was little sign of tension between McCain and Bush, who were rivals for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination and have repeatedly clashed over McCain's willingness to chart his own policy course. As a victim of torture while a prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict, McCain held unassailable authority on the subject with his colleagues as well as ordinary Americans.

"Senator McCain has been a leader to make sure that the United States of America upholds the values of America as we fight and win this war on terror," Bush said.

"We've been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective, and that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture, whether it be here at home or abroad."

New limits

The McCain amendment could place new restrictions on the CIA and the methods it uses in interrogating terrorist suspects held in secret facilities that the agency operates overseas. The agency is believed to have custody of several dozen high-level al-Qaida prisoners and other terrorism suspects.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA has used an array of coercive techniques that go beyond methods traditionally employed by military interrogators.

One that has reportedly been employed by agency operatives is called "waterboarding," which involves strapping a prisoner to a board and dousing him with water to create a sensation of drowning.

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