Senate Backs Strict Rules for Detainee Treatment
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The Republican-controlled Senate last night overwhelmingly defied a White House veto threat. In a vote of 90-to-9, senators from both parties approved setting strict guidelines for the humane treatment of all persons detained by US military forces. They attached the provision to a must-pass defense spending bill despite warnings from the Bush administration that the president would veto the measure. More from NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
Last July when the Senate first appeared likely to pass new guidelines for the treatment of military detainees as part of a defense authorization bill, Republican leaders pulled that bill from the floor. Those leaders have refused to bring that bill up again. So the Republican sponsors of the new prisoner guidelines defied the administration and attached them last night as an amendment to a $440 billion defense bill, a bill that would be difficult for President Bush to veto. Arizona Republican John McCain, the amendment's principle sponsor, says Congress has a moral as well as a constitutional duty to set clear guidelines on the treatment of detainees.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We demanded intelligence without ever clearly telling our troops what was permitted and what was forbidden. And when things went wrong, we blamed them and we punished them. I believe we have to do better than that.
WELNA: McCain's measure does two things. First, it establishes the guidelines listed in the Army Field Manual as the sole standard for the interrogation of all those detained by the US military, whether the detainees are uniformed soldiers or not. Second, it forbids cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of those prisoners. McCain realized such a ban is crucial from the feedback he's gotten traveling around the world.
Sen. McCAIN: At everywhere I go, I encounter this issue of the treatment of prisoners and the photos of Abu Ghraib and what is perceived in the world to be a continued mistreatment of prisoners. It is harming our image in the world terribly.
WELNA: McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said uniform rules are also needed because the US would otherwise lack moral standing to object to the abuse of American troops taken prisoner. That failed to sway Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, the only senator who argued against McCain's amendment.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I shall oppose it. I may be all alone, but I shall oppose it because I think there is a place in our operations against individuals involved in the war on terrorism where we deal with them as they deal with us.
WELNA: But South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the detainee measure, argued what's also at stake is the self-respect of the members of the military.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I want every terrorist to know that if you're not killed on the battlefield and you're captured, things are going to happen to you. You're going to be interrogated aggressively, but we're going to treat you humanely not because we worry about your sensitivities, because we don't want to become who we're interrogating.
WELNA: And Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander pointed out that the Constitution specifically calls on Congress, not the president, to define the rules concerning all captures on land and water.
Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): In the short term, the president can set the rules, but the war on terror is now four years old. We don't want judges making up the rules. We Republicans often say we don't like to see judges legislating from the bench. So for the longer term, the people should set the rules. That's why we have an independent Congress. That is our job.
WELNA: But at the White House yesterday, spokesman Scott McClellan argued there's no need for Congress to set rules on detainees.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): It would be unnecessary and duplicative and it would limited the president's ability as commander-in-chief to effectively carry out the war on terrorism.
WELNA: McClellan reminded reporters the White House has recommended the president veto McCain's measure, but Mr. Bush may never face such a choice. The detainee guidelines could be stripped from the defense spending bill when the Senate and House reconcile their versions of that bill. McCain says dropping the measure would be a terrible mistake.
Sen. McCAIN: I'm very concerned. You know, we're going to have to get enormous public pressure on. There's no doubt about that.
WELNA: That pressure grew with last night's lopsided vote approving McCain's measure.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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