WASHINGTON—President Bush reversed course Thursday and accepted a Senate-approved measure to ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of terrorist suspects by U.S. interrogators.
The deal appeared to be a clear victory for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the proposed ban, and a setback for Vice President Dick Cheney and others who had argued that the ban would hurt U.S. efforts to glean information from detained terrorist suspects.
The White House agreed to McCain's ban after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed it Wednesday, and McCain said he would reword it to make it clear that interrogators from the Central Intelligence Agency would have the same rights as military interrogators to defend themselves against abuse charges.
"There were legitimate concerns raised by the administration concerning the rights of interrogators," McCain said during an Oval Office session with Bush and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the deal was made public.
McCain said the new wording would take language from the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows accused soldiers to argue that they thought they were obeying legal orders and apply it to CIA interrogators as well. McCain said the wording wouldn't contradict precedents from World War II military trials that "obeying orders is not a sufficient defense."
Congressional leaders welcomed the end of the McCain-White House stalemate, which was stalling two military spending bills and threatening the holiday adjournment for lawmakers.
"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, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee. "The fog of law is finally lifting. America's moral black eye is finally healing."
Congress had overwhelmingly backed the ban. The Senate approved it in October by a 90-9 margin. On Wednesday, the House instructed its conference committee negotiators to adopt the Senate proposal by a lopsided margin of 308-122, with 107 Republicans voting with the majority.
Still, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would block the legislation unless the White House assured him in writing that the measure wouldn't damage intelligence-gathering. But other legislators said Hunter couldn't stop the ban.
Thursday's agreement brought to an end a dramatic showdown between the Republican-led Congress and Bush over who sets rules for the treatment of suspected terrorists.
McCain's provision would bar inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody and limit interrogation techniques for U.S. troops and operatives to those listed in the Army field manual.
The White House in September threatened to veto the measure, saying it would hurt the war on terror, and Cheney personally lobbied against it, arguing that CIA operatives should be exempt from its provisions.
But McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, continued to press for the measure. With controversy continuing to rage around allegations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the deaths of some prisoners after they were questioned in Afghanistan, Republican leaders in Congress dropped their opposition.
Still, it took several weeks of negotiation before the White House agreed to accept the McCain measure.
McCain said that agreement came at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, two hours after the House voted to endorse his provision. But McCain said the House vote wasn't the deciding factor. "It was nearly a done deal at the time of the House vote," he said.
Questions about U.S. treatment of detainees dogged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's European trip last week to the point that she was forced to state that U.S. forces overseas are prohibited from mistreating suspected terrorists.
Rice's statement was viewed as a subtle policy shift that was welcomed by U.S. allies. Despite Rice's comments, the White House and McCain continued to wrestle over the language of his amendment. The senator and national security adviser Stephen Hadley were in intense negotiations in the days before Wednesday's House vote.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department attempted to dispel concerns that an Army field manual is being rewritten to approve coercive interrogation techniques banned by the McCain measure.
Lt. Col. Carl Ey, an Army spokesman, said the revised manual conforms to the Third Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war. "We're not going to write anything that's going to violate that," he said.
Most of the new manual is unclassified. But a 10-page appendix that includes training information on various interrogation scenarios is classified, he said. "We don't want the bad guys to know what we will do to them" so that they can train themselves to resist, Ey said in explaining the classification.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown, Warren P. Strobel and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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