Why Congress, Bush disagree on waterboarding of terror suspects
The president is likely to veto a bill outlawing such harsh interrogation methods, but the debate goes on.
Much of the debate over interrogation techniques in the war on terror is focusing on a tactic called waterboarding. But a bill passed last month outlaws the full range of harsh interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency to force terror suspects to talk.Skip to next paragraph
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Supporters say the law is an effort by Congress to bring moral and legal clarity to a murky corner of America's war on terror. Opponents say the bill would forewarn Al Qaeda and help them defeat tactics that US intelligence officers rely on to keep America safe.
A promised veto by President Bush may be imminent. And it does not appear there are enough votes in Congress to override such a veto. But the debate is almost certain to continue as the issue arises in high-profile legal cases.
The intelligence authorization bill, passed by the Senate 51 to 45 last month, includes a provision requiring the CIA to abide by the same interrogation procedures used by the US military and outlined in the Army Field Manual.
The action outlaws the coercive interrogation tactics secretly approved for use by the CIA against Al Qaeda suspects. Those tactics included waterboarding, which triggers a reflexive terrifying sensation of drowning.
The Army Field Manual also outlaws prolonged isolation with sensory deprivation, forced hypothermia, and sleep deprivation, among other controversial tactics.
President Bush and CIA Director Michael Hayden have defended the CIA's interrogation program. Intelligence officers need flexibility in gathering information from terror suspects that might save innocent lives, officials say. And Al Qaeda operatives should not be given advance knowledge of the techniques they may face in the interrogation room.
But there are also broader concerns about such techniques being deemed illegal by Congress. While waterboarding was used against three high-level Al Qaeda suspects, many of the other controversial techniques were routinely used on a much larger group of detainees, according to government reports.
The quality of that gathered information is an issue lurking in the background of several of the highest profile terror cases in the US legal system. Detainees at the Guantánamo terror prison camp are asking the US Supreme Court for an opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention by having federal judges test the veracity of allegations made against them.
The Bush administration is fighting to prevent any examination of the quality of US intelligence information in a court of law. Such an inquiry might, in turn, lead to broader questions about the legality of US interrogation methods.
Similar questions about the quality of information and legality of interrogation techniques are expected to arise at US military commissions that are set to conduct war-crimes trials later this year at Guantánamo.
Supporters of the Army Field Manual approach say information obtained through more benign methods of questioning yield more reliable information. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, made this point in a letter to the troops last year. "Certainly extreme physical action can make someone 'talk;' however, what the individual says may be of questionable value," he wrote.