House Fails to Overturn Interrogation Bill Veto

House Democrats have failed to overturn President Bush's veto of a bill to prohibit the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques on terror suspects. The bill included waterboarding. The White House says an override would have harmed national security.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When it comes to fighting terrorism, President Bush is at odds with congressional Democrats. They can't agree on a terrorist surveillance program or on the techniques intelligence agencies should use.

In the latest standoff, the House last night failed to muster enough votes to override the president's veto of an intelligence bill, a bill that would've banned harsh interrogation techniques, including the controversial practice of waterboarding.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Democrats framed the debate right away.

Representative ANNA ESHOO (Democrat, California): T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

ELLIOTT: California Representative Anna Eshoo, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, took aim at the president.

Representative ESHOO: The reason he vetoed the bill is because he is for torture.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Bush vetoed the intelligence authorization bill on Saturday, arguing it would eliminate the alternative procedures the administration has developed to question the world's most dangerous and violent terrorists. The bill strengthened congressional oversight of intelligence agencies and required them to adhere to the U.S. Army Field Manual interrogation standards.

The manual prohibits torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. It rules out a number of methods, including mock executions and depravation of food, water and medical care. But the method getting the most attention in this debate was waterboarding, a practice the CIA has said it used on three terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett.

Representative LLOYD DOGGETT (Democrat, Texas): It sounds a little like a cousin of skateboarding or snowboarding, but in fact waterboarding is simply a euphemism for torture by drowning.

ELLIOTT: Others argued the nation's international reputation is on the line. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the Bush administration has blurred the line between legitimate interrogation tactics and torture.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): In pursuit of those who seek to harm us we must not sacrifice the very ideals that distinguish us from those who preach death and destruction and say that their ends justify whatever means they may use.

ELLIOTT: The White House said the CIA program has produced critical intelligence and helped prevent a number of attacks. Most Republicans stood with the president, leaving the House 51 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

But Texas Republican Mack Thornberry, a member of the Intelligence Committee, rejected the notion that this was a partisan fight.

Representative MACK THORNBERRY (Republican, Texas): There are some of those criticisms of the administration that I might well agree with about what they've done in the past. But I think it is a far different thing to stand up here and argue that we should put into law a measure that ties the hands of the professionals we expect to keep us safe.

ELLIOTT: Thornberry said it's wrong for Congress to limit the tools agents have and spell out what interrogation techniques are allowed.

Representative THORNBERRY: It's like giving al-Qaida the training manual that they need to prepare their people for.

ELLIOTT: Republicans argued the House was having the wrong debate. It should instead take up a foreign surveillance bill. Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra is the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): We're going to tell al-Qaida exactly what may happen. We're going to give them our playbook. And at the same time we have stopped and limited our ability to listen to radical jihadists.

ELLIOTT: That fight will continue later this week. House leaders say they will not vote on a Senate bill that would give immunity to phone companies that cooperated with warrantless wiretapping. Instead, the House will vote on a plan to give the companies access to classified documents to defend themselves in court.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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