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Bush Gets Behind Anti-Torture Measure


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

After two months of opposition and negotiations, the White House has agreed American restrictions on torture will be strengthened in accordance with the demands of a veteran who was tortured himself. Former prisoner of war John McCain wants to ban US interrogators from using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on detainees. Senator McCain said his measure will, as he put it, help win the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on why the White House relented.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Bush administration never liked Senator McCain's amendment which he attached to two defense-related measures. Those opponents, led by Vice President Cheney, argued it would tie the hands of interrogators trying to extract information from detainees captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The White House threatened to veto any measure containing the provision. But the tide steadily built against the administration. The Senate adopted the amendment by a 90-to-9 vote to months ago. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced an unrelenting drumbeat of criticism of US interrogation policies in her recent trip to Europe. And just Wednesday night the House in an overwhelming bipartisan fashion indicated its support of the measure. Yesterday the president read the writing on the wall. Mr. Bush invited McCain to the White House and announced his agreement with his one-time political rival in the Oval Office.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Senator McCain has been a leader to make sure that the United States of America upholds the values of America as we fight and win this war on terror, and we've been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective. And that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.

NAYLOR: McCain, who took part in numerous negotiations with national security adviser Stephen Hadley but refused to give ground, said his amendment sends a strong message to the world.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): That the United States is not like the terrorists. We have no grief with them. But what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are. And I think that this will help us enormously in winning the war for the hearts and minds of people throughout the world.

NAYLOR: National security adviser Hadley denied to reporters that McCain wound up with all that he had originally sought. Hadley said the White House had one language that will give civilian interrogators, such as those in the CIA, the same legal protections that military interrogators get. If accused of abuses, they'll be able to argue in court that they believed they were following legal orders. But McCain had earlier offered similar language himself.

Despite the agreement, some in Congress are still withholding their support. California Republican Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he needs to hear more from the White House.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): Our position is, until we have an assurance from the White House that the provisions which we have been working on provide the same high level of effective intelligence gathering capability that we presently have, I'm not going to sign that deal.

NAYLOR: Other conservatives argue the provision is unnecessary because, they say, a ban on torture is already written into law, but they can do little to block the agreement, which was quickly praised by many lawmakers as a needed clarification. The senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman of California, said the McCain provision lifts a fog.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): We've had this black hole for four years in which the rules on detentions and interrogations were completely unclear and they were changing on a frequent basis, depending on what White House policy memo was being followed for the moment. And now finally we will have a legal framework that applies both to our military and others who are interrogating detainees.

NAYLOR: The measure is expected to win final approval before Congress adjourns for the year. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.