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Congressional negotiators grapple with torture legislation

Associated Press
Published October 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators are feeling heat from the White House and their constituents as they consider whether to back a Senate-approved ban on torturing detainees in U.S. custody or weaken it as the White House prefers.

The White House is floating an alternative proposal that would allow the president to exempt covert agents outside the Defense Department from the prohibition.

Meanwhile, some newspapers are calling for lawmakers to support Sen. John McCain's provision that would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held.

"There's a lot of public pressure to retain the language intact. At the same time, there's pressure from the vice president's office to modify it," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a group that supports McCain's provision.

Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA director Porter Goss met last week with McCain, R-Ariz., and suggested excluding from the torture ban overseas clandestine counterterrorism operations by agencies other than the Pentagon "if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack."

McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Tuesday that he rejected that because "that would basically allow the CIA to engage in torture."

It's unclear just how much influence McCain has in the House-Senate negotiations to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the $445-billion defense bill. McCain won't be involved in those negotiations.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who chair Congress' defense spending subcommittees, will be among the leaders of those talks in coming weeks.

Young has said the United States has no obligation to terrorists. Stevens, who voted against the ban in the Senate, said he planned to tweak it during negotiations to satisfy administration concerns that the ban was too broad.

Top Democratic bargainers - Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania - support McCain's language.

Earlier this month, the Senate added the torture prohibition and the interrogation standards to its defense bill on a 90-9 vote, even though the Bush administration threatened a veto.

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 00:46:05]

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