WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans blocked a bill Friday that would restrict the interrogation methods the CIA can use against terrorism suspects.
The legislation, part of a measure authorizing the government's intelligence activities for 2008, had been approved a day earlier by the House and sent to the Senate for what was supposed to be final action. The bill would require the CIA to adhere to the Army's field manual on interrogation, which bans waterboarding, mock executions and other harsh interrogation methods.
Senate opponents of that provision, however, discovered a potentially fatal parliamentary flaw: The ban on harsh questioning tactics had not been in the original versions of the intelligence bill passed by the House and Senate. Instead, it was a last-minute addition during negotiations between the two sides to write a compromise bill, a move that could violate Senate rules. The rule is intended to protect legislation from last-minute amendments that neither house of Congress has had time to fully consider.
Although it's not unheard of for new language to be added in House-Senate negotiations, the rules allow such a move to be challenged and the language stripped from the bill.
In a separate development related to CIA interrogations, Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused Friday to give Congress details of the government's investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes of interrogations of terror suspects. He said doing so could raise questions about whether the inquiry is vulnerable to political pressures.
In letters to leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Mukasey also said there is no need right now to appoint a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. The preliminary inquiry currently is being handled by the Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed disappointment and said the tapes would be a major topic at his committee's hearing next week to consider the nomination of U.S. District Judge Mark Filip for deputy attorney general.
The Senate was prevented from voting on the intelligence bill because Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., placed a hold on it while the GOP procedural challenge goes forward.
"I think quite frankly applying the Army field manual to the CIA would be ill-advised and would destroy a program that I think is lawful and helps the country," Graham said in an interview.
If the Senate were to approve a stripped-down authorization bill next week, it would then have to go back to the House for another vote.
The field manual amendment was pushed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and backed by two Senate Republicans, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Feinstein defended the provision and said the Senate should debate it. "The Army Field Manual has been an effective guide for the military," she said. "It was very carefully written and reviewed. It has not come under criticism, unlike the constant criticism in the CIA arena .... It is my belief that America is not well served by torture."
The White House threatened to veto the bill this week over the interrogation restrictions and a list of other issues. The CIA denies that it tortures detainees.
The Army field manual, adopted in 2006, prohibits forcing detainees to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over detainees' heads or duct tape over their eyes; beating, shocking, or burning detainees; threatening them with military dogs; exposing them to extreme heat or cold; conducting mock executions; depriving them of food, water, or medical care; and waterboarding.
Waterboarding is a particularly harsh form of interrogation that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.
The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners but has not used the technique since 2003, according to a government official familiar with the program who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. CIA Director Michael Hayden prohibited waterboarding in 2006.
The White House gave the CIA special latitude to conduct harsh or "enhanced" interrogations in 2002 to break down recalcitrant terror suspects.