Global Policy Forum

Senate Moves to Protect Military Prisoners


By Eric Schmitt

New York Times
October 6, 2005

Defying the White House, the Senate overwhelmingly agreed Wednesday to regulate the detention, interrogation and treatment of prisoners held by the American military. Senator John McCain, right, was the prisoner treatment bill's main sponsor. He held a news conference on September 22 with Senator John Ensign.

The measure ignited a fierce debate among many Senate Republicans and the White House, which threatened to veto a $440 billion military spending bill if the detention amendment was tacked on, saying it would bind the president's hands in wartime. Nonetheless, the measure passed, 90 to 9, with 46 Republicans, including Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, joining 43 Democrats and one independent in favor.

More than two dozen retired senior military officers, including Colin L. Powell and John M. Shalikashvili, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed the amendment, which would ban use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in United States government custody. It would also require all American troops to use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army field manual. It would not cover techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Republicans and Democrats took to the Senate floor on Wednesday in a passionate debate over the measure, which supporters said would clarify a jumble of conflicting standards and cast a new spotlight on the treatment of detainees at American prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba. "Confusion about the rules results in abuses in the field," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the measure's main sponsor. "We need a clear, consistent standard."

Mr. McCain, who was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War, added in closing Wednesday night: "Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us - every single one of us - knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies." Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, questioned why the White House would oppose a measure that codifies military procedures and policies, and reaffirms a ban against torturing detainees. "It is time for Congress, which represents the people, to clarify and set the rules for detention and interrogation of our enemies," he said.

Opposing the effort, Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, said that requiring American troops to follow procedures in the Army manual was not practical in the current war environment. "The techniques vary upon the circumstances and the physical location of people involved," Mr. Stevens said.

The measure faces stiff opposition in the House. And the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said, "If it's presented, then there would be a recommendation of a veto." Armed with the strong Senate vote, however, Mr. McCain is expected to keep the pressure on in the public arena and when the spending bill goes to a House-Senate conference committee. Mr. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered the same proposal during the summer as the Senate was working on a bill setting Pentagon policy. But Mr. Frist scuttled that legislation in part because of White House opposition.

In July, the White House dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to lobby Senators McCain, Graham and John W. Warner of Virginia personally. This week, White House officials not only pressured Mr. McCain to modify his measure, but also approached sympathetic Senate Republicans to work against the amendment. The Senate vote drew applause from human rights organizations. "Senator McCain's amendments are a key step toward the restoration of the military's traditional prohibition against torture and inhumane treatment," said Leonard S. Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The vote came two weeks after the Army began an inquiry into new allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 by members of a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. Three former members of the unit who have come forward have said many American troops who interrogated detainees did not know which techniques were permitted. As the debate over detainees and Pentagon policy proceeded, senior Senate Democrats pressed the Bush administration Wednesday to lay out a detailed strategy for the war as Iraqis prepare to vote next week on a constitution. "It's simply time for some accountability," said Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

In a letter to the president, Mr. Biden and other Democrats asked Mr. Bush a series of pointed questions: How many Iraqi forces can operate without United States assistance? What specific steps is the administration taking around the referendum to reconcile Iraq division? What is being done to attract more international support to stabilize Iraq? How should the public assess progress?

"In times past, when asked to explain your Iraq policy to our troops and the American people, you have chosen to reply that we need to 'stay the course,' " the letter said. "But simply staying the current course is not a strategy for success."

Carl Hulse contributed reporting for this article.

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