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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Senators Split on Party Lines in Vote on Iraq-Related Issues

June 17, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday rejected a move, prompted by the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, to prohibit the use of private contractors in the interrogation of detainees.

The measure, one of the first legislative responses to the abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, was rejected by the Republican-controlled chamber on a largely party-line vote of 54 to 43.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that the measure -- which would have required the Pentagon to replace civilian interrogators with military personnel within 90 days -- could cripple intelligence-gathering amid the conflict.

The Senate also overwhelmingly approved a Republican-drafted measure that would strengthen federal anti-fraud laws but defeated, again mostly along party lines, a stronger Democratic-sponsored amendment designed to crack down on war profiteering. That vote was 46 in favor of the amendment and 52 against.

"Nobody wants to use the word 'Halliburton' around here," complained Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), referring to the company once led by Vice President Dick Cheney that has come under fire for allegedly overcharging the government for its work in Iraq.

Leahy proposed making war profiteering a crime, subjecting violators to prison sentences of 20 years and fines of up to $1 million. But the GOP majority again followed the lead of Warner, who argued that the measure was so vague it could discourage businesses from seeking military contracts and hurt the war effort.

Senators from both parties came together on another measure -- reaffirming the nation's opposition to torture or other inhumane treatment of prisoners, such as that depicted in the photos of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. The Defense secretary would be required to issue guidelines ensuring that troops comply with anti-torture standards.

The votes came as the Senate moved toward approval of a bill that would authorize $447 billion for the Pentagon for the 2005 fiscal year, including $25 billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the Senate will consider a measure to increase the size of the Army by 20,000 troops, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion.

The proposal to prohibit contractors from serving as interrogators was sponsored by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who reminded his colleagues of the international furor over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

"Don't you understand how much trouble our country's in?" he asked them.

The role of military contractors in the scandal is under investigation. Eight Iraqis last week filed a lawsuit accusing contractors of abusing them in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. A report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba recommended disciplinary action against two civilian contractors who dealt with Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib and identified a civilian interpreter as a possible criminal suspect.

Dodd argued that contractors serving as interrogators have operated with minimal supervision and said it was unclear whether any who might have mistreated prisoners could be prosecuted.

Warner argued that it would be difficult to find experienced military replacements for the contractors, many of whom are former military officers. Dodd's measure called for replacing contractors serving as interrogators with military personnel within 90 days after the defense bill is signed into law and replacing contractors serving as interpreters within one year.

Dodd disputed that his proposal would harm intelligence-gathering, noting that more than 500 military interrogators are about to graduate from the Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), also speaking out against the measure, said: "We may need the very best interrogator in the United States of America who has the ability to [obtain] information that can save thousands of lives.... A young MP who is just out of training school [would] not be as good as an interrogator who is a retired MP who's worked in the detective division of the New York Police Department, or a retired CIA agent."

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, supported Dodd's measure as well as Leahy's proposal.

Despite the measure's defeat, at least one Republican, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, indicated that there might be support for replacing contractors serving as interrogators with military personnel over time.

Although Graham said he voted against the measure, he told Dodd: "It bothers me greatly that our interrogation systems are being outsourced. We don't know who is interrogating these people in prison

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