White House Hides From Torture Questions

The White House fended off questions Thursday about whether it pressured Congress to kill a Senate proposal that would have prohibited intelligence officials from torturing foreign prisoners.

Democratic and Republican congressional aides said the proposal probably was not going to advance anyway because the House adamantly opposed it and refused to include it in any form in the intelligence overhaul bill.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Congress dropped the proposal under pressure from the Bush administration.

“We did not view the provision as necessary, because there are already laws on the book to address these issues,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday in response to questions raised by the report.

As part of legislation last year, the Senate overwhelmingly approved an amendment calling for intelligence agencies to develop rules explicitly banning the use of torture and to report those policies – and any suspected violation of them – to Congress.

The House opposed the provision, which would have held intelligence officials to the same standards as military officials, and did not include it in its own version of the bill.

The White House objected to the provision last fall, arguing in an Oct. 18 letter to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that the measure “provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled under applicable law and policy.”

McClellan said the sudden emergence of the three-month-old issue was a case of “someone trying to create a story where there is not one.” He added, “This is Hill politics and posturing.”

McClellan said torture is banned by law. “The provision in this legislation is something that we viewed as not necessary because it’s already addressed in international treaties, in our laws, and in the Defense Authorization Act,” he said.

“We’ve made it very clear that we do not condone torture. The president would never authorize torture,” McClellan said. “And that applies to everyone.”

Congressional aides say House and Senate negotiators working on the final bill agreed to drop the proposal with the assurance that the intelligence committees would take up the issue this spring, at which time the proposal could be thoroughly reviewed.

The proposal was the brainchild of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who was behind a similar amendment added to a military authorization bill last year.

It applied only to the Pentagon and was approved over the objections of the Defense Department, which said in a June 15 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Existing law provides a sound basis for the conduct of the war, and existing mechanisms for accountability provide a sound basis for detecting and punishing those who violate the law.”