WASHINGTON—Nineteen months after the first revelations of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the Bush administration's position on treating detainees is increasingly under fire.
With Vice President Dick Cheney in the lead, the White House has fought a vigorous campaign—much of it behind the scenes—to reject limits on how to treat prisoners who might have information on terrorist plots.
But a growing number of lawmakers, both moderate Republicans and Democrats, argue that abuse of prisoners is immoral, has devastated the United States' image and ability to project its values overseas, and would endanger captured American soldiers or civilians.
There also are growing qualms at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's State Department and within the uniformed military over spreading disclosures of detainee abuse by U.S. personnel and the global criticism the United States is taking.
Finally, intelligence and military officers argue that abuse and torture are likely to produce bogus intelligence because prisoners will say whatever they think their interrogators want to hear to stop the abuse.
For example, said one U.S. intelligence official, al-Qaida training camp commander Ibn Sheikh al-Libi gave his interrogators bogus information about links between Iraq and al-Qaida after the CIA turned him over to Egyptian authorities for questioning. "The Egyptians aren't known for their gentle treatment of terrorists," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is classified.
With the debate raging, President Bush weighed in Monday firmly on the side of his vice president.
While saying "we do not torture," Bush told a news conference in Panama: "Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people.
"There's an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again, and so you bet, we'll aggressively pursue them, but we will do so under the law," the president said.
Bush has threatened to veto a measure sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees. The measure, which was attached to a defense spending bill, passed the Senate 90-9.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, argued that abuse of detainees harms the United States rather than helps in fighting terrorism.
"Subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop," McCain said. "Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy. ... And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas because inevitably these abuses become public."
The intensifying struggle over the policy has been fueled in part by continued revelations of abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reports last week by The Washington Post of a secret CIA prison system for terrorism suspects established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the latest incident, the U.S. military said Monday that five soldiers from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment were charged Saturday with abusing detainees two months ago. The soldiers allegedly punched and kicked three detainees as they were being transported on Sept. 7.
"It's become clear that Abu Ghraib wasn't a one-off kind of situation," said Curt Goering, the deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.
The system that allowed prisoners to be abused "was far more comprehensive and widespread than first understood," Goering said. "The measures taken so far by the (U.S.) government haven't been at all sufficient."
Cheney lobbied vigorously to stop McCain's measure from being passed. He brought CIA Director Porter Goss with him to Capitol Hill recently to argue for an exemption for U.S. intelligence personnel.
Cheney "views those conversations as private," said his spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride.
Last week, Cheney chose his counsel David Addington as his new chief of staff. Addington, who's replacing the indicted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, helped shape a 2002 Justice Department memo arguing that torture might be justified in some cases.
There are signs, though, that Cheney's position is losing ground.
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a constitutional challenge to Bush's military tribunals for foreign terrorism suspects.
The U.S. government recently invited United Nations envoys to tour the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The envoys turned down the offer because they were refused permission to interview detainees.
Some Republicans are increasingly vocal in opposing the White House position.
"I think the administration is making a terrible mistake in opposing John McCain's amendment on detainees and torture. Why in the world they're doing that, I don't know. You've got 90 senators out of 100, and that includes many Republicans, opposed to (torture)," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
The House of Representatives' versions of Pentagon spending and policy legislation, however, don't contain McCain's language, even though a majority in the House appears to support it.
At least 15 Republicans have written a letter meant for the House-Senate negotiators, urging that McCain's language be retained. So far House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., hasn't named House conferees, delaying negotiations.
"It's not in our best interest to have any doubt about where we in the United States stand," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., one of the letter signers and chairman of a House panel on terrorism. "My Republican conference, that overwhelmingly supports the war in Iraq, must send a clear message that we do not tolerate torture."
Republican House leaders appear to be holding up the Pentagon spending bill so that they can attach an across-the board spending cut to it. As the only remaining must-pass bill before Congress recesses for the year, the bill is an attractive vehicle for controversial legislation.
McCain said he would "not relieve pressure" on the defense spending bill. He said he would attach his provision to any legislation that comes before the Senate until it is adopted.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Jonathan S. Landay and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map