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House Supports McCain’s Stance Against Torture

Times Staff Writers

Putting new pressure on the Bush administration, the House on Wednesday endorsed a measure pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to outlaw torture and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

The largely symbolic measure, which divided Republicans, forced individual House members to take a stand on McCain’s closely watched drive to enshrine an explicit ban on torture into U.S. law. It passed the House on a 308-122 vote.

The vote came as McCain was in intense negotiations with the White House, arguing that any loopholes in U.S. law endangered U.S. service members held captive by enemies.

“We’ve got to have a clear statement that the United States by law will not engage in cruel, inhuman treatment or torture,” McCain said Wednesday. “You need to do that now because of our image in the world and all the alleged abuses that have taken place.”

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McCain and the White House remain at loggerheads over the issue. McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, met in his office for an hour on Wednesday with Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley. The impasse has stalled work on two defense budget measures that must pass in the coming days to ensure smooth financing for operations in Iraq.

Neither side reported progress in the talks.

“This is a very dynamic discussion, and I imagine they will talk as necessary until they can reach an understanding,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Hadley.

“We’re still negotiating,” McCain said. “We have to reach agreement in the next day or two, one way or another.”

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McCain has proposed an amendment to both defense bills that would prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of any person in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. It would also make the Army Field Manual, which explicitly upholds the Geneva Convention, the standard for all U.S. interrogators, including those in the CIA.

The White House has opposed the amendment, arguing that existing laws already prohibit torture and that the legislation would unnecessarily tie the president’s hands in fighting terrorism. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials also have sought to provide immunity from prosecution for government interrogators, especially those from the CIA.

However, McCain’s measure was approved by a bipartisan vote of 90-9 when it faced a Senate vote in October. McCain vowed to permit no changes to the amendment’s central provisions, rejecting exceptions for the CIA as well.

“We will not grant immunity. There will be no immunity for anyone,” he said. “I can’t tell you if we will reach agreement or not, but the pace of discussions is pretty intense.”

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The House motion on torture was introduced Wednesday by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), an advocate for withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. Murtha’s resolution instructs House negotiators on the defense budget measures to adopt the McCain language when they draw up a joint version of the defense authorization act. It passed the House earlier this year without any provisions on torture.

The Murtha motion expresses the views of House members, but is not binding on defense spending bill negotiators.

“We cannot torture and still maintain the moral high ground,” Murtha said before the vote. “Torture discredits the United States.”

Republicans in the House split their vote, with 107 voting for the measure and 121 voting against it. The bill was backed by 200 Democrats along with one independent, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

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All of California’s Democratic representatives voted for the measure, with the exception of Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who did not vote. Most of California’s Republican representatives voted against it, with three exceptions: Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, Rep. Richard W. Pombo of Tracy and Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield.

Even as the negotiations between the White House and McCain stalled, the Senate was considering a separate measure Wednesday that would require the administration to account for how detainees were being treated at secret facilities operated by the CIA.

That bill would require inspectors general at the CIA and the Pentagon to submit quarterly reports to congressional intelligence committees on the “health and welfare” of prisoners being held at overseas sites operated by the U.S. -- including so-called black sites run by the CIA.

The requirement was included in an amendment proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and attached to the intelligence authorization bill, which was expected to clear the Senate this week.

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The bill also contained language requiring the nation’s top intelligence official, John D. Negroponte, to submit a report to Congress “providing a full accounting on any clandestine prison or detention facility currently or formerly operated by the United States government.” That provision was in an amendment offered by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Negroponte would have to explain to congressional intelligence committees whether the Red Cross and observers from the United Nations “have had, or should have” access to all U.S. run detention facilities.

To date, international observers and even U.S. congressional officials have been barred from examining clandestine CIA-operated detention sites.

The intelligence authorization bill lays out the broad spending priorities for the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies, with an aggregate budget that is said to exceed $40 billion, though actual figures are classified.

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The bill also includes a separate provision that seeks to force the administration to turn over copies of highly classified prewar presidential intelligence briefings that mentioned Iraq.

The language sets the stage for a likely fight between Congress and the White House over access to the president’s daily briefs, or PDBs, the top-secret intelligence reports that are ordinarily given only to the chief executive and his closest aides.

The White House has sought to deflect criticism of its decision to launch the Iraq invasion by arguing that members of Congress had access to the same prewar intelligence reports that contained erroneous conclusions about Baghdad’s alleged weapons programs.

Democrats have countered that members of Congress are routinely denied access to PDBs and other high-level intelligence. The language in the authorization bill -- added as part of a separate amendment from Kennedy -- is designed to challenge those White House assertions.

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The amendment calls for Negroponte to turn over to the House and Senate intelligence committees copies of PDBs that mention Iraq and were delivered from 1997 to March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. That span would include Iraq briefings delivered to former President Clinton, presumably making the request more palatable to Republicans.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has previously asked for copies of the briefings as part of its review of prewar intelligence on Iraq, but the White House did not comply.

The authorization bill was drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is in the midst of an extensive and contentious review of the accuracy of prewar claims by administration and congressional officials about the threat posed by Iraq and its alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.

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