WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress defied a White House veto threat on Wednesday and voted to ban the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
On a largely party-line vote of 51-45, the Democratic-led Senate passed a broad intelligence measure approved in December by the House of Representatives and sent it to President George W. Bush.
“There must be no doubt in the world that this great nation does not torture,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, one of the bill’s chief sponsors. Waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique, has been widely condemned by human rights groups and other countries as torture and illegal.
But White House spokesman Tony Fratto said aides would recommend a veto. “Parts of this bill are inconsistent with the effective conduct of intelligence gathering,” he said.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the leading Republican presidential candidate and an author of previous anti-torture legislation, voted against the overall intelligence bill. The interrogation provision says the Central Intelligence Agency must adhere to limitations in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
“I made it very clear that I think that waterboarding is torture and illegal, but I will not restrict the CIA to only the Army Field Manual,” McCain said before the vote.
The action follows CIA Director Michael Hayden’s disclosure to Congress last week that government interrogators had used waterboarding on three suspects captured after the September 11 attacks.
The new provision would require the CIA to comply with Army rules on questioning detainees, which forbid eight methods including waterboarding, forced nudity, electric shock, use of dogs and mock executions.
The manual allows mostly psychological methods, such as making a detainee believe cooperation will shorten a war, the bill’s sponsors said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and another leading sponsor, said: “This legislation ensures that the United States will follow the law — the Geneva Conventions, the Conventions Against Torture, and the Detainee Treatment Act.”
The bill’s passage came as a surprise and delighted human rights groups.
Senate Republicans had been expected to try to eliminate the provision but backed off, figuring Bush would veto it anyway and Congress could not muster the votes to override, aides said.
“Regardless of his (Bush’s) decision, today’s vote is momentous,” said Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First. “We have good reason to believe that the next administration will abandon this misguided legacy of abuse and work with Congress to uphold American values and the rule of law.”
The CIA said it does not comment on pending legislation.
Hayden told Congress last week that waterboarding may no longer be legal given previous changes in U.S. law, but the White House has refused to rule out using it again.
Hayden said in his testimony that the agency would respect interrogation limits passed by Congress and could make no exceptions regardless of the gravity of any future emergency.
“My view is that would substantially increase the danger to America,” he said.
Editing by Eric Beech