WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers defied a White House veto threat on Wednesday and voted to bar CIA contractors from interrogating suspected terrorists, in the latest clash over detainee treatment in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved the provision in adopting a broad measure to authorize funding of U.S. intelligence agencies for the 2009 fiscal year. A related bill awaits action in the Senate.
Passage of the multibillion dollar bill came on a voice vote, indicating broad assent, despite the White House veto threat issued earlier in the day.
In addition to the contractor ban, the White House said it also objected to provisions to force the president to give Congress more sensitive national security information, and to establish an inspector general with authority over all federal intelligence agencies.
Other measures in the bill would increase funding for intelligence agents and to monitor developments in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The bill contains many provisions “that conflict with the conduct of intelligence activities,” the White House budget office said in a notification to Congress. “If (the bill) were presented to the president, the president’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”
CIA Director Michael Hayden has acknowledged that outside contractors were used to conduct some interrogations in the agency’s detention program for suspected terrorists, which has been widely condemned for harsh techniques that critics say amount to torture.
Hayden told Congress in February he believed contractors helped conduct “waterboarding,” the fiercely condemned simulated drowning technique that he acknowledged using on three al Qaeda suspects.
Critics say the use of outside contractors could allow the CIA to dodge accountability for abuses, but the agency has said contractors are subject to the same laws as agency staffers.
“This bill invests in people, our most important resource ... (and) contains a number of provisions that promote greater accountability,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, said during debate on the measure.”
But the White House said prohibiting contract interrogators could deprive the program of necessary questioning skills and expertise.
“Such a provision would unduly limit the United States’ ability to obtain intelligence needed to protect Americans from attack,” it said.
The House adopted a Republican-sponsored amendment aimed at preventing federal agencies from barring official use of terms such as “jihadist” or “Islamo-fascism” in discussing counterterrorism efforts.
Some government officials have warned that the use of such terms alienates moderate Muslims, but supporters of the amendment argued that they simply reflect words used by militant Islamist groups.
Lawmakers also approved a provision requiring the government to give prompt updates of any new intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, reflecting dissatisfaction with a National Intelligence Estimate last year that reported Iran had suspended design work on a nuclear device.
The Senate Intelligence Committee passed in May its version of the overall bill, which contains a similar ban on CIA interrogation contractors. It also would ban CIA harsh interrogations and require that the Red Cross be granted access to all detainees.
The measure awaits action by the full Senate. Differences between the House and Senate versions would have be resolved before any final measure is passed.
Major funding provisions of the intelligence bill are classified. Last year the administration bowed to a law ordering disclosure of the annual intelligence budget and said it had spent $43.5 billion in fiscal 2007.
Editing by Anthony Boadle and Alan Elsner