Critics say bill on detainee interrogation will not prevent torture
Several Democrats and civil-rights advocates charged Friday that a Republican compromise over the treatment of terrorism suspects leaves...
WASHINGTON — Several Democrats and civil-rights advocates charged Friday that a Republican compromise over the treatment of terrorism suspects leaves the door open for torture and abuse, while stripping captives of a basic right to a court appeal.
"This is a bill that's essentially going to continue to allow coercive interrogations," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented about 500 detainees, many of them held for more than four years at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
"I find it just shameful as a human-rights lawyer who's spent my life suing every dictator in the world over this kind of stuff."
Some military defense lawyers also assailed the compromise, contending the proposed rules would prevent them from learning whether evidence used against their clients was obtained through coercion or torture.
"It is worse than the system that was in place before," said Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, a military defense lawyer. "It is not going to ensure there is a fair trial."
But leading Democrats stopped short of opposing the compromise announced Thursday between the White House and Senate Republicans. The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, called the agreement "promising."
Vote expected soon
The House and Senate are expected to vote next week before the Congress breaks for elections.
Republicans may tie the bill to a more controversial measure authorizing President Bush's once-secret warrantless surveillance program.
Republicans all but dared Democrats to vote against the plan, suggesting that would turn off voters and kill the Democrats' efforts to take back control of either chamber of Congress in November elections.
"I don't think sitting on the sidelines in the war on terrorism is a good idea," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Congress has been under pressure to pass a comprehensive detainee plan since the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in June that the system Bush created to handle terrorism cases violated U.S. law.
Bush previously took the position that the international Geneva Conventions of 1949, protecting prisoners of war, didn't cover so-called enemy combatants seized in the war on terrorism, enabling the CIA to use interrogation techniques widely considered tantamount to torture.
The compromise bill seeks to immunize interrogators from prosecution for those tactics prior to the end of 2005, while limiting their use in the future. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that "would put our own troops at risk if other countries decide to apply a similar standard."
Critics of the compromise praised Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia for forcing the White House to rethink some of what it wanted from Congress.
Still, critics said the administration got too much.
The compromise defines nine "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions as felony war crimes and rules out techniques that could cause serious mental or physical pain. But it gives the president, not Congress, the authority to decide what gray-area techniques should be allowed and how to punish violations.
The ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson called the compromise a "get-out-of jail-free card to the administration's top torture officials."
Critics also expressed doubts that a required executive order from the president will clearly define the new boundaries of interrogations.
"The key to this deal will be whether Congress exercises real oversight over the CIA interrogation program," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
She said the White House should agree to give the intelligence panels a description of the techniques it wants to authorize, legal justifications and evidence that the techniques are necessary and effective.
Ratner, the human-rights lawyer, said the bill appears to allow CIA interrogators to leave scantily clad detainees in cold rooms, force them to stand in stressful positions or deny them sleep for prolonged periods, possibly all at once. "I would hope they will come out and say that's not allowed," he said. "Right now, this bill is full of holes."
The measure, he noted, does nothing to bar renditions, in which the CIA or another agency transfers custody of a detainee to a foreign government, where the detainee could be tortured outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Senators who negotiated the bill said they believe it would bar the use of simulated drowning, known as "waterboarding," a tactic reportedly used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The compromise introduced into legislation Friday would affect the handling of 469 detainees held at Guantánamo — including Mohammed and 13 other "high-value" figures moved this month from secret CIA prisons overseas — and all future captives.
The legislation also limits detainees from appealing in federal court to challenge their detentions, a right that dates to the Magna Carta in 1215. Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., of the Senate Judiciary Committee has voiced concerns and scheduled a hearing Monday to explore that issue.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.
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