Senator John McCain's vote last week against a bill to curtail the Central Intelligence Agency's use of harsh interrogation tactics disappointed human rights advocates who consider him an ally and led Democrats to charge that he was trying to please Republicans as he seeks to rally them around his presidential bid.The bill, which the Senate passed Wednesday by 51 to 45, would force the C.I.A. to abide by the rules set out in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation, which prohibits physical force and lists approved interrogation methods.
Mr. McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has led the battle in recent years on a number of bills to end torture by the United States. He said he voted against the bill Wednesday because legislation he had helped to pass already prohibits the C.I.A. from "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment."
Mr. McCain, of Arizona, said he believed it would be a mistake to limit C.I.A. interrogators to using only those techniques that were enumerated in the Field Manual, which he noted was a public document.
"When we passed the Military Commissions Act, we said that the C.I.A. should have the ability to use additional techniques," Mr. McCain told reporters Friday in Oshkosh, Wis. "None of those techniques would entail violating the Detainee Treatment Act, which said that cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment are prohibited."
The problem, human rights advocates say, is that disagreement remains over which tactics are prohibited. Mr. McCain, for example, said waterboarding - a simulated drowning technique - was an illegal form of torture. But while the C.I.A. says it no longer uses waterboarding, the Bush administration has not ruled out its use in the future.
"It's disappointing," said Jennifer Daskal, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, "that Senator McCain, who has long made it clear that Congress had intended to outlaw abusive interrogation techniques including waterboarding, won't stand up to an administration that continues to say waterboarding is O.K. in certain circumstances."
Although Mr. McCain has battled the Bush administration over whether waterboarding is illegal, his vote on Wednesday allied him with President Bush, who has threatened to veto the bill.
Democrats have used the vote to suggest that Mr. McCain was trying to curry favor with conservatives in the Republican Party, who have viewed him with suspicion and whose support he needs as he tries to unite the party behind his presidential campaign. The Democratic National Committee said in a statement last week that Mr. McCain had chosen "pandering over his principles."
Mr. McCain said the vote was consistent, noting in a statement he submitted to the Congressional Record that when Congress voted in 2005 to apply the Army Field Manual to the entire Department of Defense, it deliberately excluded the C.I.A.
Mr. McCain, according to a Senate aide of his, believes that while the C.I.A. should be - and is - prohibited from using cruel and inhumane and degrading tactics, it should have the flexibility to use acceptable tactics that are not listed in the Field Manual.
Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First, said given the administration's refusal to clearly ban abusive techniques, it made sense for Congress to be more explicit about what should and should not be allowed. Requiring the C.I.A. to follow the Field Manual, Ms. Massimino added, would be a welcome step in that direction.
"We're very disappointed in his vote," she said of Mr. McCain. "Because of his personal history and his leadership on this issue, it sends a terrible message to the rest of the world, to Americans, to the troops."
Mr. McCain, in his statement to the Congressional Record, faulted the Bush administration for declining to declare waterboarding illegal. He said Congress intended to outlaw the practice when it passed the Military Commissions Act in 2006 and was even reassured by the administration that it had been.
"Staging a mock execution by inducing the misperception of drowning is a clear violation of this standard," Mr. McCain said in the statement. "Indeed, during the negotiations, we were personally assured by administration officials that this language, which applies to all agencies of the U.S. government, prohibited waterboarding."
"It is unfortunate," he continued, "that the reluctance of officials to stand by this straightforward conclusion has produced in the Congress such frustration that we are today debating whether to apply a military field manual to nonmilitary intelligence activities. It would be far better, I believe, for the administration to state forthrightly what is clear in current law - that anyone who engages in waterboarding, on behalf of any U.S. government agency, puts himself at risk of criminal prosecution and civil liability."
© 2008 The New York Times