WASHINGTON -- In a sharp rebuke to the White House, the Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would impose sweeping new restrictions on interrogation methods used by the CIA and ban a widely condemned technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to feel he is drowning.
President Bush is expected to veto the bill, which would outlaw an array of coercive interrogation tactics that U.S. allies have denounced but the administration has said are crucial to prevent terrorist attacks.
The measure, already approved in the House, would require the CIA to abide by strict interrogation guidelines adopted by the Army after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Because of the veto threat, the Senate vote was seen in some ways as a political showdown over one of the most divisive issues in the country's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Last week, the CIA confirmed it had used waterboarding, and the White House said the technique could be authorized again -- reigniting a controversy over human rights and national security.
The debate has ties to two other sensitive issues: the Bush administration's decision this week to seek the death penalty in military commission trials for six alleged Sept. 11 plotters, and its push for congressional approval of expanded electronic surveillance in a measure that gives immunity to phone companies for their roles in past spying. The Senate passed such a bill this week, and House members are debating whether to go along.
Many Democratic lawmakers have denounced waterboarding as a form of torture that has undermined U.S. moral standing in the world.
"To me, this is really a very big day," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), sponsor of the provision that would limit interrogation methods. "Torture is out."
But leading Republicans -- as well as conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- have defended the legality of what the CIA refers to as "enhanced" interrogation techniques.
The decision by Republicans to allow a vote on the measure -- forgoing procedural moves that could have blocked it from coming to the floor -- suggested that party leaders saw political advantage in setting up a presidential veto. The bill was approved 51 to 45 in the Senate after passing the House in December, 222 to 199. Neither margin would be sufficient to override a veto.
Underscoring the complexity of the political currents, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed GOP nominee for president and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted against the measure. McCain led earlier efforts in the Senate to ban cruel treatment of prisoners, and has denounced waterboarding in presidential debates. But preserving the CIA's ability to employ so-called enhanced interrogation methods has broad support in the party's conservative base.
In a statement, McCain explained his vote against the measure by saying he considers waterboarding illegal under existing U.S. law but he does not want to bind U.S. intelligence officers with restrictions designed for the military.
"I believe that our energies are better directed at ensuring that all techniques, whether used by the military or the CIA, are in full compliance with our international obligations and in accordance with our deepest values," McCain said.
The leading Democratic contenders for president, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, did not vote.
Five Republicans voted for the measure, and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted against it.
Civil liberties groups praised the outcome. Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, called the vote momentous and said that, if enforced, the law would "ensure that the United States no longer employs interrogation methods it would condemn if used by our enemies against captured Americans."
The vote was not on a stand-alone interrogation measure but on broad legislation that sets spending priorities for the U.S. intelligence community in the coming year.
The original bill included no language on the treatment of detainees. That provision was inserted during negotiations between the Senate and the House. Feinstein's added language would bar all U.S. agencies from using "any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual."
Under existing law, only prisoners in U.S. military custody are afforded such protections. The CIA abides by a different set of rules -- spelled out in an executive order signed by Bush in July -- that allows the agency to use an array of harsh methods, including sleep deprivation and so-called stress positions.
After the Senate vote, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that "for a number of reasons, the president's advisors would recommend a veto of this bill."
The vote came at a time when a series of developments have called attention to the CIA's treatment of detainees. Last month, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden acknowledged that the agency had destroyed videotapes of interrogations of two prisoners who subjected to harsh methods. The disclosure triggered a criminal inquiry by the Justice Department that is in progress.
Acknowledging last week that the agency had used waterboarding on three prisoners in 2002 and 2003, Hayden said that information from those prisoners accounted for roughly a third of the CIA's intelligence reports on Al Qaeda after Sept. 11.
Hayden said waterboarding may no longer be a legal option in light of new laws and rulings. But he has argued against requiring the CIA to abide by the Army Field Manual, saying it would deprive the agency of effective tools against terrorism.
The Army Field manual bans all but 19 interrogation approaches. It outlaws sleep deprivation and the practice of putting prisoners in stress positions designed to cause pain. It also bans unwarranted touching of detainees, the use of dogs to intimidate, and imposition of temperature extremes.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Los Angeles Times