WASHINGTON — After resisting for months, President Bush caved in to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday and said he would accept a formal ban on the cruel or inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world.
The agreement represented a rare policy reversal for Bush on his signature issue: his leadership in the battle against terrorism. It followed an unusual rebuke of the president from lawmakers in his own Republican Party, who largely fell in line behind McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and torture survivor with unassailable authority on the subject.
The White House had resisted a formal ban, arguing that existing law outlawed torture. Bush administration officials also had expressed concern that a ban would undermine U.S. personnel interrogating terrorism suspects, because detainees would fear them less.
But McCain's push for the ban on cruel and inhumane treatment drew overwhelming support from senators and representatives of both parties, who expressed concern that the moral authority of the United States in the rest of the world had eroded as a result of abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and reports of misconduct elsewhere.
McCain argued that Bush's concerns were outweighed by the damage already suffered to the reputation of the U.S. and the increased danger to captured U.S. service members -- who, without a ban in place, would be more likely to face torture at the hands of enemies.
"We've sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists," McCain said at the conclusion of an Oval Office meeting with Bush in which they sealed the deal. "What we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are."
Originally, the White House, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, had sought an exception from the law for CIA interrogators and other assurances that interrogators would not face prosecution. McCain insisted that no U.S. personnel should be granted immunity from prosecution under amendments attached to military budget measures that must pass the Senate and the House to ensure smooth funding of operations in Iraq.
After weeks of tough negotiations, the president and his top advisors won two concessions from McCain: that interrogators accused of using improper methods could offer as a defense that they were acting on orders that a reasonable person would believe to be lawful, and that the U.S. government would pay their legal fees.
Those concessions were not enough to win over Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who had backed the White House in its effort to get broader protections. Hunter said he would not accept the compromise as part of his committee's military spending bill without further assurances.
In a news conference, Hunter said he had asked the White House to send a letter to his committee and the House intelligence committee asserting that the McCain amendment would not damage U.S. intelligence operations.
"This is not something you jump into because everyone wants to go home for Christmas," Hunter said.
Hunter's resistance raised the possibility that McCain's proposal would be moved onto another bill to ensure passage by the end of the year.
"The language is agreed. The vehicle by which it is going to get enacted by the Congress is still being worked," said national security advisor Stephen Hadley, who acted as the chief negotiator for the White House with McCain.
Those negotiations began in October, after McCain's amendment was adopted 90 to 9 by the Senate. The proposal was endorsed Wednesday in a nonbinding measure in the House by a vote of 308 to 122.
The McCain amendment would prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held.
That language could place new restrictions on the CIA and the methods it uses in interrogating terrorist suspects held in secret facilities operated by the agency in foreign countries. The agency is believed to have custody of several dozen high-level Al Qaeda prisoners and other terrorist suspects.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA has used an array of coercive techniques that go beyond methods traditionally employed by military interrogators. One technique that has reportedly been employed by agency operatives is called "waterboarding," which involves strapping a prisoner to a board and dousing him with water to create a sensation of drowning.
The method is said to have been used on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003. McCain's amendment does not explicitly ban waterboarding, but it and certain other methods are presumed to be deemed unacceptably cruel or inhumane under the amendment.