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House endorses ban on cruel interrogation techniques

WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives on Wednesday threw its weight behind a Senate-approved ban on the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation techniques—a major defeat for President Bush that raises pressure on the White House to reach a compromise on the measure.

Democrats were joined by 107 Republicans in the 308-122 vote, which instructed House members to adopt the Senate ban during conference committee negotiations over a Defense Department spending bill. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who has recently clashed with the White House over Iraq policy, proposed the instruction. Only one Democrat, Jim Marshall of Georgia, voted against it.

"We cannot torture and still retain the moral high ground. Torture brings discredit upon the United States," said Murtha, the only House member who spoke before the vote.

The House action came after days of talks between Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who proposed the interrogation limits, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley continued Wednesday without a compromise.

The Bush administration, arguing that the prohibition would hurt its ability to glean information from suspected terrorists, has threatened to veto the legislation if the language isn't amended to provide some legal protection to interrogators accused of violating the provision.

But with the House also backing the ban, it was unclear whether the White House could continue to oppose it. The Senate approved the ban in October, 90 to 9.

No White House comment was available immediately after the House vote.

McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, indicated before the House vote that he would continue talking to the White House, but that he believes he's bargaining from a position of strength.

"We'll get this resolved one way or the other, one way or the other," he said. "We have the votes."

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 overwhelming congressional support for the measure comes amid controversy over the treatment of suspected terrorists being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that it doesn't use torture, but human rights groups have accused the United States of abusive interrogation techniques.

Murtha blamed confusion over the rules for reports of abusive behavior by U.S. troops.

"During times of war, clear guidelines governing the treatment of prisoners are imperative," he told the House. "We have one set of rules for the prisoners of war and another for enemy combatants, one set for Guantanamo, another for Iraq, one for the military, one for the CIA."

International complaints also have focused on the Bush administration's practice of turning suspected terrorists over for questioning to authorities in third countries where torture is often used.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged the practice, known as "rendition," but insisted that the United States wasn't shipping suspects to other countries for the purpose of torture as an interrogation method.

During a European tour last week, Rice said U.S. forces overseas are prohibited from mistreating suspected terrorists, a statement that was seen as a Bush administration policy shift.

"It was a softening of the administration's position," said Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio. "I think Rice realized that politically and in the propaganda war against terrorists, we were losing the battle."

The White House-McCain negotiations featured a new wrinkle Wednesday following a report in The New York Times that the Army this week approved classified interrogation techniques. Some military officials and lawmakers suggested that the move was aimed at weakening McCain's amendment, a charge Pentagon officials denied.

McCain said he heard that the Army guidelines were in the discussion phase and said he's looking forward to a briefing from Pentagon officials. Changes in the Army rules wouldn't affect his amendment, he said.

"The field manual would flow from this (amendment) rather than vice versa," he said. "If we pass this legislation, then it would make it pretty clear what would have to be in the field manual."

Earlier, White House officials had expressed confidence that they would strike a deal with McCain.

"The goal is the same here," said Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a key Bush adviser, on CBS' "Early Show" Wednesday. "The goal is to make it very clear that the United States is a nation of laws and that we operate our detainee policy within our laws, within international obligations and without torture."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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