By Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, March 8, 2008; 1:47 PM
President Bush vetoed Saturday legislation meant to ban the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, saying it "would take away one of the most valuable tools on the war on terror."
"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Congress approved an intelligence authorization bill that contains the waterboarding provision on slim majorities, far short of the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
Bush's long-expected veto reignites the Washington debate over the proper limits of U.S. interrogation policies and whether the CIA has engaged in torture by subjecting prisoners to severe tactics, including waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning.
The issue also has potential ramifications for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a longtime critic of coercive interrogation tactics who nonetheless backed the Bush administration in opposing the CIA waterboarding ban. The Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), both support the ban, though neither was present for last month's Senate vote for the bill that Bush is to veto.
"It is shameful that George Bush and John McCain lack the courage to ban torture," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
McCain has said that, while he opposes waterboarding, he agrees with the Bush administration that the CIA needs to be able to use tactics banned by the military but which fall short of torture or cruel treatment.
The legislation would have limited the CIA to 19 less-aggressive tactics outlined in a U.S. Army field manual on interrogations. Besides ruling out waterboarding, that restriction would effectively ban temperature extremes, extended forced standing and other harsh methods that the CIA used on al-Qaeda prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The president said in his radio address that the agency needs to use tougher methods than the U.S. military to wrest information from terrorism suspects.
"Limiting the CIA's interrogation methods to those in the Army Field Manual would be dangerous because the manual is publicly available and easily accessible on the Internet. . . . If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the Field Manual, we could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives," Bush said.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has also spoken out against the Senate bill and defended the methods as lawful and effective.
"The US Army and CIA clearly have different missions, different capabilities and therefore different procedures," Hayden wrote in a message sent Saturday to CIA employees. "CIA's program, atightly controlled and carefully administered national option that goes beyond the Army Field Manual, has been a lawful and effective response to the national security demands that terrorism imposes."
Most of the Washington debate over the CIA interrogation program has focused on waterboarding, which was used on three al-Qaeda suspects held in secret prisons in 2002 and 2003. The tactic involves strapping a prisoner to a board with their head lower than their feet, placing cloth or cellophane over the face and pouring water on their head to make them fear they are drowning.
The practice as used by the CIA bears similarities to the methods of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and by the current dicatorship in Burma, according to congressional testimony and torture experts.
But as Bush emphasized in his remarks, the program also included other coercive tactics that are forbidden in the U.S. military and widely considered unlawful among human rights advocates.
The CIA has not specified all the tactics it wants to keep using but says it no longer uses waterboarding. Bush administration officials have not ruled out using waterboarding again.
Many Democrats and human-rights groups say coercive tactics are often counterproductive and that, regardless, constitute illegal torture under U.S. and international law. Frank Donaghue, chief executive officer of Physicians for Human Rights, said many of the agency's tactics may constitute war crimes.
"America must not be scared into thinking that these 'additional' tactics are anything other than what they are -- torture," Donaghue said in a statement Saturday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush has "compromised the moral leadership of our nation," and said the administration is ignoring the advice of military experts who oppose harsh techniques.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, suggested that those who support harsh methods simply lack experience and do not know what they are talking about. "If they think these methods work, they're woefully misinformed," Soyster said at a news briefing called in anticipation of the veto. "Torture is counterproductive on all fronts. It produces bad intelligence. It ruins the subject, makes them useless for further interrogation. And it damages our credibility around the world."
In two separate forums earlier this week, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, commander of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, defended the efficacy of less-coercive, "rapport-building" interrogation tactics.
"We get so much dependable information from just sitting down and having a conversation and treating them like human beings in a businesslike manner," Buzby told reporters in a conference call Thursday.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.