WASHINGTON — President Bush on Saturday blocked an effort by congressional Democrats to limit interrogation measures used in the fight against terrorism by vetoing an intelligence authorization bill that would have outlawed waterboarding and other harsh methods.
A rare veto in the last year of his two-term presidency, Bush's action was as much a rebuke of Democrats on Capitol Hill as it was a bid to maintain the strong presidential authority to wage war on foreign terrorists that he has asserted since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Al Qaeda remains determined to attack America again," Bush said, calling tough interrogation methods "one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror." He added that forcing prisoners to talk was critical, saying "the best source of information about terrorist attacks is the terrorists themselves."
But Democrats and civil liberties groups have argued that techniques such as waterboarding are torture and that the United States should not resort to such inhumane tactics. Even the FBI, which has dispatched agents to the terrorist prison at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and sites in the Middle East, has suggested that torture is not needed to make captives cooperate.
Yet Bush critics acknowledge that Democrats probably do not have the votes to override the veto and push ahead with legislation to limit CIA interrogators to the techniques in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation, which prohibits physical force.
"Torture is a black mark against the United States," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who cosponsored the legislation. "It drives a wedge between us and our allies, making the war on terror harder to fight. And it makes it more likely our own troops will be abused by future captors."
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said: "The world must know that America does not torture." She cited statements from several dozen current and former U.S. military officials decrying harsh tactics, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq. Petraeus, in a letter last May, said that techniques in the Army manual "work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees."
The bill the president vetoed was the latest scrimmage between the White House and congressional Democrats over the expanded powers Bush has claimed in the wake of the 2001 terrorists attacks.
In another major dispute, House Democrats have opposed giving immunity to telephone companies for their role in terrorism surveillance that critics contend was illegal, holding up a major overhaul of a law on electronic spying. Democrats have also objected to the continued use of the prison at Guantanamo and the administration's plan to try some detainees before military commissions.
The debate over interrogation techniques flared up last month when the CIA confirmed that it had used waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and the White House insisted that it could be authorized again.
The measure to ban the technique was attached to a bill that sets spending priorities for the nation's intelligence agencies. It passed the House in December, 222-119, and the Senate last month, 51-45.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted against the bill. McCain has led past efforts to ban cruel treatment of prisoners. But he said at the time of the vote that, although he believes waterboarding was illegal under U.S. law, he did not want to hinder U.S. intelligence officers with restrictions designed for the military.
The Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, did not vote on the bill.
After Saturday's veto, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden sent a note to all agency employees supporting the president's decision to block the legislation. "The U.S. Army and CIA clearly have different missions, different capabilities and, therefore, different procedures," he wrote. He said the CIA's "program . . . has been a lawful and effective response to the national security demands that terrorism imposes." Hayden added that the CIA will continue "to work within the boundaries established by our nation's laws."
Bush in his weekly radio address Saturday said that tough questioning of terror captives has helped prevent several attacks, from a planned strike on the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, to a plot to hijack a plane and fly it into Los Angeles' former Library Tower building, now called the U.S. Bank Tower.
He said that because the Army field manual is a public document and available to terrorists, even on the Internet, his administration thought it prudent to develop alternate techniques to glean information from prisoners.
"The fact that we have not been attacked over the past 6 1/2 years is not a matter of chance," the president said.