WASHINGTON – Congress on Wednesday moved to prohibit the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods on terror suspects, despite President Bush's threat to veto any measure that limits the agency's interrogation techniques.
The prohibition was contained in a bill authorizing intelligence activities for the current year, which the Senate approved on a 51-45 vote. It would restrict the CIA to the 19 interrogation techniques outlined in the Army field manual. That manual prohibits waterboarding, a method that makes an interrogation subject feel he is drowning.
The House had approved the measure in December. Wednesday's Senate vote set up a confrontation with the White House, where Bush has promised to veto any bill that restricts CIA questioning.
Arguing for such restrictions, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the use of harsh tactics would boomerang on the United States.
"Retaliation is the way of the world. What we do to others, they will do to us — but worse," Rockefeller said. "This debate is about more than legality. It is also about morality, the way we see ourselves ... and what we represent to the world."
The legislation bars the CIA from using waterboarding, sensory deprivation or other harsh coercive methods to break a prisoner who refuses to answer questions. Those practices were banned by the military in 2006.
CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said last week that current law and court decisions, including the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, cast doubt on whether waterboarding would be legal now. Hayden prohibited its use in CIA interrogations in 2006; it has not been used since 2003, he said.
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for all detainees in U.S. custody, including CIA prisoners.
In comments last week to the House Intelligence Committee, Hayden acknowledged for the first time publicly that the CIA has used waterboarding against three prisoners.
The technique is still officially in the CIA tool kit but it requires the consent of the attorney general and president on a case-by-case basis.
Hayden warned Congress that if the CIA were limited to military techniques, it would adhere to them without wavering, even if it meant failing to get urgent and crucial information. He contends the CIA has different interrogation needs than the military and requires more latitude.
"I guarantee you we will live within those confines of any statute of that nature. But you have to understand there would be no exceptions," he said.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, backed by Senate Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, inserted the provision in December into a bill providing guidelines for the running of U.S. intelligence agencies this year.
The 19 approved interrogation techniques in the military field manual include "good cop/bad cop," "false flag" — making prisoners think they are in the custody of another country — and the separation of a prisoner from other prisoners for up to 30 days at a time.
It prohibits military interrogators from hooding prisoners or putting duct tape across their eyes. They may not be stripped naked or forced to perform or mimic sexual acts. They may not be beaten, electrocuted, burned or otherwise physically hurt. They may not be subjected to hypothermia or mock executions. It does not allow food, water and medical treatment to be withheld, and dogs may not be used in any aspect of interrogation.
Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted against the measure Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York dared Bush to veto the bill, saying that the president's Iraq war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, rejects harsh interrogation.
"If it's good enough for General Petraeus and FBI Director Robert Mueller, it's good enough for all of America," Schumer said. "If the president vetoes this, he will be voting in favor of waterboarding."
Feinstein noted Bush's repeated declarations that the United States does not torture. "If he means what he says this is the bill to sign," she said.