Under pressure, Bush accepts McCain plan to ban cruel treatment of detainees
WASHINGTON – President Bush embraced Sen. John McCain’s proposal to ban cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects on Thursday, reversing months of opposition that included White House veto threats.Bowing to pressure from the Republican-run Congress and abroad, the White House signed off on the proposal after a fight that pitted the president against members of his own party and threatened to further tarnish a U.S. image already soiled by the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.Bush said the ban and accompanying interrogation standards will “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.”After months of fierce negotiations, McCain declared “a done deal” that he said shows that the United States “upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.””We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists,” the Arizona Republican said while appearing alongside the president in the Oval Office to announce the agreement.The agreement still needs to be approved by Congress, whose GOP leaders hope to adjourn for the year in a few days.The deal keeps McCain’s original proposal, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate and endorsed by the House. One of the final stumbling blocks in negotiations was removed when language was added allowing CIA interrogators the same legal protections as those afforded to military interrogators.Those rules say the accused can defend themselves by arguing it was reasonable for them to believe they were obeying a legal order. The government also would provide counsel for accused interrogators.That language was McCain’s own counterproposal to the White House’s early calls, pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney, for an exemption for CIA interrogators. The administration had also sought some protection from prosecution for such agents accused of violating the standards.Also added, officials said, was a statement explicitly rejecting immunity from civil or criminal lawsuits for those who violate the standards.After the deal was announced, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he would block completion of one of the two defense bills that includes the ban unless he got White House assurances that “the same high level of effective intelligence gathering” would be achieved if the agreement became law.But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Hunter’s counterpart in the Senate, was on board and appeared with Bush and McCain in the Oval Office.”We’re going to get there,” Warner predicted.House and Senate officials said the McCain provisions were likely to remain in the must-pass $453 billion defense spending bill that provides $50 billion for the Iraq war and that Congress planned to approve before adjourning for the year.The agreement was reached a day after the House – in bipartisan fashion – endorsed McCain’s proposal. That vote put both GOP-controlled chambers behind McCain by veto-proof majorities, putting pressure on the White House to reach an agreement.It came as the president finds himself defending his wartime policies daily amid declining public support for the Iraq war and his own low standing in opinion polls. The United States also is feeling pressure and facing questions from its European allies over its treatment of detainees held abroad.The Bush administration had long said a ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading practices did not legally apply to suspects held overseas. During a trip to Europe last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pressed repeatedly on the topic, finally saying that “as a matter of U.S. policy,” such treatment was banned for U.S. personnel wherever they are.The agreement reached Thursday would put the prohibition into law.The White House initially sought to kill the proposal altogether, arguing that the ban and interrogation limits could tie the president’s hands during wartime. The administration later switched gears and Cheney made a rare personal appeal to all GOP senators for a CIA exemption. Later, the administration sought some protection from prosecution for accused interrogators.Congressional sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the ban, and McCain, a former Navy pilot who was held and tortured for five and a half years in Vietnam, adopted the issue.The legislation would prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held. It also would require that service members follow procedures in the Army Field Manual during interrogations of prisoners in Defense Department facilities.The provision that was added was modeled after the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which says military personnel accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a reasonable person could have concluded they were following a lawful order. Those rights – and the right to legal counsel – would be extended to CIA interrogators under the agreement.Bush said the agreement ensures “protections for those who are the front line of fighting the terrorists.”McCain said there were “legitimate concerns raised by the administration concerning the rights of interrogators,” leading to the additional language.The Senate had included McCain’s provisions in two defense bills but the House omitted them from their versions. Both bills have since been stalled.