When President Bush vetoed legislation Saturday that would have prohibited the CIA from using physical force in interrogations, he had the support of Sen. John McCain - the most outspoken of any presidential candidate in his opposition to torture.The Arizona Republican has described his own torture by the North Vietnamese, who captured him in 1967 after his plane was shot down on a bombing run. He spoke out against the near-drowning technique called waterboarding when it was being defended by other Republican candidates and by Vice President Dick Cheney.
And McCain won the signature of a reluctant Bush on 2005 legislation that prohibited military interrogators from using waterboarding and other "cruel, inhumane or degrading" methods.
On Saturday, however, McCain backed Bush's veto of a bill that would have barred the CIA from employing those same techniques - or any others not authorized by the Army Field Manual - when questioning prisoners.
In a Saturday morning radio address announcing the veto, Bush said the measure would have barred "safe and lawful" interrogation methods that have prevented terrorist attacks.
"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," the president said.
He did not specify those practices, but repeated previous statements that the CIA no longer uses waterboarding.
In congressional testimony last month, however, Justice Department official Stephen Bradbury indicated the administration does not consider waterboarding illegal in all circumstances and reserved the right to resume its use by the CIA.
Campaign aides said Saturday that McCain believes waterboarding violates both U.S. and international law and is forbidden to all federal agencies. Randy Scheunemann, foreign policy director for McCain's campaign, denied any inconsistency between the senator's record and his position on the bill.
"It's not about waterboarding and it's not about torture," Scheunemann said.
He said McCain opposed the bill for the same reason he exempted the CIA from his 2005 legislation: his belief that the agency should not be limited to methods spelled out in a public Army manual.
McCain feels "it's a good thing that (the CIA can use) enhanced interrogation techniques that are not revealed in your newspaper," Scheunemann said. He declined to identify methods that McCain believes should remain available to the CIA while being off-limits to military interrogators.
The Army Field Manual prohibits the use of force during interrogation. Among the techniques it forbids, in addition to waterboarding, are beatings, burns and electric shock; use of extreme heat; use of dogs; mock executions; forced nudity or sexual acts; hooding or taping a prisoner's eyes; prolonged sleep deprivation; and denial of needed food, water or medical care.
Democratic backers of the vetoed bill are far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush's veto.
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"This president had the chance to end the torture debate for good," said Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a sponsor of the legislation. "Yet he chose instead to leave the door open to use torture in the future."
When the Senate passed the measure by a 51-45 vote on Feb. 13, McCain insisted that his opposition did not signal a retreat from his position on torture.
His 2005 legislation restricting military interrogation methods exempted the CIA but was not intended to "permit the CIA to use unduly coercive techniques," McCain said in a Senate floor statement.
He said the Bush administration should acknowledge "what is clear in current law," that waterboarding is illegal and that any U.S. interrogator who uses it risks criminal prosecution. But McCain did not specify any other techniques that should be allowed or prohibited, or explain why Congress should not set uniform standards.
Human-rights lawyers who praised McCain for his stand against torture said they were disappointed by his position on the bill and bewildered by his explanation.
"I remain convinced that he is personally opposed to these techniques," said New York attorney Scott Horton, a former president of the International League for Human Rights. But as long as the Bush administration is free to apply its view of the law, he said, the veto McCain supported will allow the CIA to use interrogation methods the senator opposes.
"I think Sen. McCain's faith that the administration will implement the law in the manner he describes is seriously misplaced," said James Cullen, a New York lawyer, retired brigadier general and former chief judge of the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
Both of McCain's potential Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, were absent from the vote but have said they support the vetoed bill. Neither has made it a campaign issue, however, and neither commented on Bush's veto.
Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean used the occasion to take a swipe at McCain.
"It is shameful that George Bush and John McCain lack the courage to ban torture," Dean said in a statement. "And it is reprehensible that McCain changed his position on torture just to win an election."
-- The full text of McCain's statement explaining his vote can be read online at sfgate.com/ZCRL.
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle