WASHINGTON _The Senate delivered a stern rebuke to the Bush administration Wednesday night, adding language banning U.S. torture of military prisoners to a $440 billion military spending bill in defiance of a White House threat to veto the whole bill if the anti-torture language was attached.
The Republican-majority Senate followed the lead of maverick Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voting 90-9 to add the anti-torture language to the legislation.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired Army general, joined 28 other retired senior military officers in endorsing the McCain-Graham amendment.
Their measure would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of any prisoner in the hands of the United States. It's a response to the revelations of torture by U.S. personnel of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, which roused worldwide disgust.
McCain, who was a prisoner of war tortured by his North Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War, cited a letter written to him recently by Army Capt. Ian Fishback asking Congress to do justice to men and women in uniform.
"Give them clear standards of conduct that reflect the ideals they risk their lives for," Fishback wrote the senator.
"We owe it to them," McCain said on the Senate floor. "We threw out the rules that our soldiers had trained on and replaced them with a confusing and constantly changing array of standards. ... We demanded intelligence without ever clearly telling our troops what was permitted and what was forbidden."
Graham, a former judge advocate in the Air National Guard, said: "We take this moral high ground to make sure that if our people fall into enemy hands, we'll have the moral force to say, `You have got to treat them right.' If you don't practice what you preach, nobody listens."
However, even if the Senate passes the spending bill with the anti-torture language included, both face an uncertain future. The House of Representatives already has passed a similar bill without any anti-torture language.
Before any legislation could go to President Bush to be vetoed or signed into law, negotiators from the House and Senate must iron out a single version in a conference committee. The Bush administration's preferences often prevail in such conference committees, often insisted upon by House Republicans.
Last week the White House sent the Senate a "statement of administration policy" that declared strong opposition to the anti-torture language on the grounds that it would tie the president's hands in the war on terrorism. The statement said that if the anti-torture terms remained in the bill's final version, "the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."
Bush has never vetoed any legislation. Vetoing a big military spending bill during wartime would be highly unusual if not unprecedented.
McCain said his amendment merely codifies current policy and reaffirms what was assumed to be the law for years. It would require that all U.S. troops—and other federal agencies, such as the CIA—adhere to the standards for interrogation of prisoners outlined in the Army Field Manual on detention and interrogation.
Opposition to McCain and Graham was led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as well as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the National Security Council staff and White House lobbyists. Frist ultimately voted for the amendment.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a World War II fighter pilot, argued that the amendment would force U.S. troops to relinquish control of prisoners and turn custody over to foreign troops. He said that would prevent "our people from taking the leadership."
The battle on Capitol Hill came in the wake of a federal court order to the Pentagon requiring the release of more photographs of American soldiers mistreating Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. The latest photos reportedly are even more disturbing than those released last year, which led to the courts-martial and the convictions of nine low-ranking enlisted Army Reserve soldiers.
Powell—who served two tours in combat in Vietnam and later was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 war against Iraq—said in a letter to McCain: "Our troops need to hear from the Congress, which has an obligation to speak to such matters. ... I also believe the world will note that America is making a clear statement with respect to the expected future behavior of our soldiers."
Powell added that the Senate action "will help deal with the terrible public diplomacy crisis created by Abu Ghraib."
McCain said he doesn't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life. But the former Navy pilot said he does regret and mourn "what we lose ... when by official policy or by official negligence we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves ... that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion ..."
He added that American troops must know that they can never forget that they are Americans and "we are obliged to make clear to them that they need not risk their or their country's honor to prevail; that they are always, always ... always Americans, and different, better and stronger than those who would destroy us."