Global Policy Forum

Veto of Bill On CIA Tactics Affirms Bush's Legacy


By Steven Lee Myers

New York Times
March 9, 2008

President Bush on Saturday further cemented his legacy of fighting for strong executive powers, using his veto to shut down a Congressional effort to limit the Central Intelligence Agency's latitude to subject terrorism suspects to harsh interrogation techniques. Mr. Bush vetoed a bill that would have explicitly prohibited the agency from using interrogation methods like waterboarding, a technique in which restrained prisoners are threatened with drowning and that has been the subject of intense criticism at home and abroad. Many such techniques are prohibited by the military and law enforcement agencies. The veto deepens his battle with increasingly assertive Democrats in Congress over issues at the heart of his legacy. As his presidency winds down, he has made it clear he does not intend to bend in this or other confrontations on issues from the war in Iraq to contempt charges against his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and former counsel, Harriet E. Miers.

Mr. Bush announced the veto in the usual format of his weekly radio address, which is distributed to stations across the country each Saturday. He unflinchingly defended an interrogation program that has prompted critics to accuse him not only of authorizing torture previously but also of refusing to ban it in the future. "Because the danger remains, we need to ensure our intelligence officials have all the tools they need to stop the terrorists," he said.

Mr. Bush's veto — the ninth of his presidency, but the eighth in the past 10 months with Democrats in control of Congress — underscored his determination to preserve many of the executive prerogatives his administration has claimed in the name of fighting terrorism, and to enshrine them into law. Mr. Bush is fighting with Congress over the expansion of powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and over the depth of the American security commitments to Iraq once the United Nations mandate for international forces there expires at the end of the year. The administration has also moved ahead with the first military tribunals of those detained at Guantánamo Bay, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite calls to try them in civilian courts.

All are issues that turn on presidential powers. And as he has through most of his presidency, he built his case on the threat of terrorism. "The fact that we have not been attacked over the past six and a half years is not a matter of chance," Mr. Bush said in his radio remarks, echoing comments he made Thursday at a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. "We have no higher responsibility than stopping terrorist attacks," he added. "And this is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe." The bill Mr. Bush vetoed would have limited all American interrogators to techniques allowed in the Army field manual on interrogation, which prohibits physical force against prisoners.

The debate has left the C.I.A. at odds with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, whose officials have testified that harsh interrogation methods are either unnecessary or counterproductive. The agency's director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, issued a statement to employees after Mr. Bush's veto defending the program as legal, saying that the Army field manual did not "exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques." Democrats, who supported the legislation as part of a larger bill that authorized a vast array of intelligence programs, criticized the veto sharply, but they do not have the votes to override it.

"This president had the chance to end the torture debate for good," one of its sponsors, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said in a statement on Friday when it became clear that Mr. Bush intended to carry out his veto threat. "Yet, he chose instead to leave the door open to use torture in the future. The United States is not well served by this."

The Senate's majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said Mr. Bush disregarded the advice of military commanders, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, who argued that the military's interrogation techniques were effective and that the use of any others could create risks for any future American prisoners of war. "He has rejected the Army field manual's recognition that such horrific tactics elicit unreliable information, put U.S. troops at risk and undermine our counterinsurgency efforts," Mr. Reid said in a statement. Democrats vowed to raise the matter again.

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has been an outspoken opponent of torture, often referring to his own experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In this case he supported the administration's position, arguing as Mr. Bush did Saturday that the legislation would have limited the C.I.A.'s ability to gather intelligence. Mr. Bush said the agency should not be bound by rules written for soldiers in combat, as opposed to highly trained experts dealing with hardened terrorists. The bill's supporters countered that it would have banned only a handful of techniques whose effectiveness was in dispute in any case.The administration has also said that waterboarding is no longer in use, though officials acknowledged last month that it had been used in three instances before the middle of 2003, including against Mr. Mohammed. Officials have left vague the question of whether it could be authorized again.

Mr. Bush said, as he had previously, that information from the C.I.A.'s interrogations had averted terrorist attacks, including plots to attack a Marine camp in Djibouti; the American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; Library Tower in Los Angeles; and passenger planes from Britain. He maintained that the techniques involved — the exact nature of which remained classified — were "safe and lawful." "Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that Al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland," he said.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, disputed that assertion on Saturday. "As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have heard nothing to suggest that information obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented an imminent terrorist attack," he said in a statement.The handling of detainees since 2001 has dogged the administration politically, but Mr. Bush and his aides have barely conceded any ground to critics, even in the face of legal challenges, as happened with the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay or with federal wiretapping conducted without warrants.

At the core of the administration's position is a conviction that the executive branch must have unfettered freedom when it comes to prosecuting war. Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Bush's actions were consistent with his efforts to expand executive power and to protect the results of those efforts. Some, he said, could easily be undone — with a Democratic president signing a bill like the one he vetoed Saturday, for example — but the more Mr. Bush accomplished now, the more difficult that would be. "Every administration is concerned with protecting the power of the presidency," he said. "This president has done that with a lot more vigor."

Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has been holding hearings on the administration's negotiations with Iraq over the legal status of American troops in Iraq beyond Mr. Bush's presidency. He said the administration had rebuffed demands to bring any agreement to Congress for approval, and had largely succeeded."They're excellent at manipulating the arguments so that if Congress should assert itself, members expose themselves to charges of being soft, not tough enough on terrorism," he said. "My view is history is going to judge us all."

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