The bitterly divided Senate came together Tuesday to ban the U.S. from ever returning to the use of Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques,” now widely recognized as torture.
By a margin of 78 to 21, the upper house passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would restrict the interrogation practices of every federal agency to those explicitly sanctioned by the Army Field Manual; a handbook that provides no entries for waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” or any of the other innovative brutalities employed by the CIA under the previous administration.
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Those acts were detailed in a 6,700-page report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last December, which found that the CIA had misled its elected overseers, portraying its techniques as more effective and less harsh than they actually were. After years of investigation, the Committee concluded that the agency’s use of such techniques didn’t produce “enhanced interrogations” but episodes of torture and false intelligence.
“I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners does not provide good, reliable intelligence,” said Sen. John McCain, a survivor of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and an author of the amendment. “I firmly believe that all people, even captured enemies, are protected by basic human rights.”’
While “enhanced” techniques were already banned by President Obama via an early 2009 executive order, without a legislative ban, his successor could reinstate the methods with a scratch of a pen.
Tuesday’s amendment also establishes mechanisms for public oversight of interrogations. The measure requires the Army to update its field manual every three years to ensure compliance with “evidence-based best practices” and to make public any proposed changes to its Field Manual at least 30 days before they take effect. Under the new rules, every agency of the U.S. government will be compelled to provide the International Committee of the Red Cross “prompt” access to any of its detainees.
Among the amendment’s GOP opponents were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Majority Whip John Cornyn and 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Lindsay Graham. His rivals for the Republican nomination, Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, voted in favor of the measure. Meanwhile, fellow contender Sen. Marco Rubio was absent for the vote.
The amendment may fall short of banning the U.S. government from subjecting its detainees to all forms of torture. The current draft of the Army Field Manual sanctions the use of sleep interruption, sensory deprivation, and stress positions, methods that constitute torture in the opinion of many experts on international law and medical ethics.
While the Senate has reached a bipartisan consensus against waterboarding, agreement on the rest of the NDAA may prove more difficult to achieve. Senate Democrats say they will block the bill, unless Republicans roll back sequester mandated caps on non-defense spending.