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The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to bar the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods including waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique denounced by rights groups as torture.
The Democratic-led Senate voted 51-45 in favor of a bill calling for the Central Intelligence Agency to adopt the US Army Field Manual, which forbids waterboarding and other types of coercive interrogation methods.
The upper chamber, however, fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome an expected veto from President George W. Bush. The House of Representatives passed similar legislation in December.
The bill’s passage came after the Central Intelligence Agency admitted last week that it had subjected three terror suspects to waterboarding, which is considered torture by human rights groups and some US lawmakers.
The practice, a staple of brutal interrogations from the Spanish Inquisition to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, usually consists of strapping down a captive, covering his face with a cloth and pouring water onto the cloth.
“Torture is a defining issue, and it is clear that under the Bush administration, we have lost our way,” said Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
“By applying the Field Manual’s standards to all US government interrogations, Congress will bring America back from the brink — back to our values, back to basic decency, back to the rule of law,” he said.
The White House, which denies that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to torture, said last week that it reserved the right to revive the use of waterboarding, which is currently not permitted.
“It will depend upon circumstances,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “The belief that an attack might be imminent, that could be a circumstance that you would definitely want to consider.”
Human Rights Watch hailed the passage of what it called “anti-torture legislation.”
“Waterboarding is and always has been illegal,” Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The president needs to listen to the Congress, and take America out of the torture business — once and for all,” Daskal said.
The legislation passed the Senate just two days after the US military announced it would seek the death penalty against six Al-Qaeda suspects accused of involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The accused include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, and who CIA chief Michael Hayden admitted was among three suspects who were waterboarded nearly five years ago.
Bush was also battling Democrats on another front in his “war on terror” tactics on Wednesday, as he pressed the House to quickly pass a controversial wiretapping legislation before it expires at 12:01 am Saturday.
Bush wants the House to approve a version of the bill that passed the Senate Tuesday. The legislation makes the law’s provisions permanent and adds blanket legal immunity for telecommunications companies facing dozens of lawsuits alleging violations of US law.
Bush reiterated Wednesday that he would brook no delays in passage of the new text authorizing the tapping of foreign telephone calls and emails he said was vital to rooting out terrorists.
“Time for debate is over. I will not accept any temporary extension. House members have had plenty of time to pass a good bill,” he said.
The House version of the draft legislation, which Bush has threatened to veto, offers no protection for the telecommunications industry and has more restrictions on the government’s power.