IN HIS BATTLE AGAINST THE Bush administration, Sen. John McCain has the one weapon the administration has always said is indispensable in the war against terrorism: moral clarity. McCain simply wants all U.S. personnel involved in the war to abide by the Army Field Manual's regulations for interrogation. An amendment he sponsored, attached to the Pentagon's annual budget bill, would clarify the U.S. position on torture, bringing it in line with U.S. and international law and basic standards of human decency. Yet the administration has been fighting his proposal with a tenacity not seen since -- well, since the president's primary campaign against McCain in 2000.
McCain's amendment should be a no-brainer. It would prohibit all U.S. personnel from practicing cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment against prisoners -- wherever they may be found. It passed the Senate by a 90-9 vote. The administration, however, prefers ambiguous rules that allow it to define torture as it sees fit.
In response to McCain, the administration has tried a number of tactics. First, it threatened to veto the bill. Then Vice President Dick Cheney made an embarrassing attempt to exempt CIA agents from the amendment (so that they can torture prisoners in "nonexistent" European secret prisons). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice then offered further legalistic obfuscations (torture is prohibited in the United States and by U.S. personnel abroad, but could occur in prisons outside U.S. jurisdiction).
And now the Army has rewritten the rules on which the McCain amendment relies. The 10 classified pages added to the Army Field Manual offer greater detail on how to walk the line between legal and illegal interrogation. The new rules do outlaw practices once not mentioned specifically -- forcing prisoners into stress positions and using police dogs, for example, as was done at Abu Ghraib. Thus they offer the type of clarity that McCain seeks but the administration hopes to avoid. But other additions may stretch the limits on what McCain and his supporters would consider acceptable techniques.
In general, however, the changes are an improvement. The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday in support of McCain's amendment, although not on the amendment itself. Still, the vote shows the president may soon be in the awkward position of having to veto the Pentagon's spending bill so it can continue to engage in torture.
The administration's attempts to preserve legal ambiguity about torture -- to create the type of secret legal spaces often found in the worst regimes -- is a shameful chapter in U.S. history. In his attempt to close it, McCain deserves all the support he can get.