Sen. John McCain Pushes Anti-Torture Clause In Defense Spending Measure & He's An Important Ally

Ranking Republican and Arizona Sen. John McCain hopes to include a ban on torture in the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress will need to pass this year to fund the armed forces, The Huffington Post reports. McCain — an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s torture program in the years following 9/11 — confirmed to Huffington Post's Ali Watkins that he's been working out how to add a measure that would clearly outlaw the sort of interrogation techniques that the CIA practiced in secret detention sites between 2002 and 2009.

Six months ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a damning report that outlined the full extent of the CIA’s covert detention and interrogation practices, drawing condemnation from the international community and renewing calls for the federal prosecution of those government officials involved. But congressional efforts to respond to the report’s allegations and pass tighter restrictions on the CIA’s antiterrorism programs face a steep uphill battle against Republican intransigence in the Senate. McCain, who suffered abusive interrogation himself during the Vietnam War, could prove a key ally to breaking through the legislative gridlock.

"It's a very combustible issue, so I'm trying to work through it carefully," McCain told HuffPost’s Watkins, who broke the story.

Although the senior Republican lawmaker wouldn’t specify the particular restrictions he was looking to add, he did acknowledge that he was working from the template that his colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is putting forward in her bill against torture. Among the provisions she proposes are closing existing loopholes in anti-torture statutes, allowing the Red Cross access to detainees at all times, making the U.S. Army Field Manuel the only sanctioned guide for conducting interrogations and blocking the CIA for overseeing detained suspects outside of brief and temporary stints. The California Democrat has not yet introduced her bill, but she made her legislative priorities clear in a December letter to the White House.

Feinstein previously served as the chair of the Intelligence Committee and commissioned the damning Senate report that outlined the full breadth of the CIA’s torture practices during the Bush years. Since releasing an executive summary of the 6,900-page report to international headlines last December, Feinstein has been at the front of the Senate’s push to prevent such a program from ever happening again.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

"Senator McCain and I have been discussing ways to implement recommendations from the torture report since the end of last year," Feinstein said to HuffPost. "I'm hopeful we can enact new laws that will prohibit the use of coercive interrogation techniques once and for all."

Yet the shift to a Republican majority in the Senate installed Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) at the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Burr has proven a fierce critic of the torture report in the past and has even endorsed the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation tactics. Even if Feinstein were able to get her bill out of committee and before the entire Senate, a substantial group of GOP senators continue to view the torture report itself as a political gamesmanship from Democrats rather than a serious case for CIA reform.

Perhaps McCain’s attempt to nest a ban inside the NDAA will avoid those legislative obstacles. As the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, he could use his political capital to bring other Republicans on board while also making it clear that opposing the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques should not be a partisan issue. But if McCain backs away from many Feinstein's reforms, it is hard to see how Congress will manage to take any substantive action on curtailing the CIA and its covert programs.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

But human rights advocates have argued that Feinstein’s recommendations do not go nearly far enough towards tackling the problems posed by the U.S. torture program. Rather than focus on explicitly outlining what sorts of interrogation are and aren’t allowed, Congress and the White House should be more concerned with the secrecy and opacity that shrouds the CIA’s covert programs, advocates say.

McCain and Feinstein’s push to codify anti-torture provisions comes amid increased calls for the Obama administration to prosecute those responsible for the torture program, given the devastating details released in the Senate report. Just this Monday, Amnesty International sent a letter to newly sworn-in Attorney General Loretta Lynch, imploring her to open a more detailed inquiry into the torture report’s allegations.

“As the new Attorney General you have a critical responsibility to ensure the USA complies with its international human rights obligations to effectively investigate evidence of crimes under international law and to bring the suspected perpetrators to justice,” Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty states in the letter. “We urge you to personally examine the full SSCI report and to immediately order a 'preliminary review' into violations of federal and international laws, with a view to bringing an end to the impunity that has become the hallmark of this unlawful program.”

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In 2009, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would not seek criminal cases against any service members who had compiled with the interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration's lawyers. But the Department of Justice, under then-Attorney General Eric Holder, decided to conduct an investigation into 100 egregious cases that same year. But after what critics consider to be a cursory investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices, Holder announced in 2011 that the department was opening two criminal cases involving the deaths of two detainees following beatings and exposure to extreme cold. The next year, Holder closed both cases without issuing any criminal charges on the grounds that there was not enough admissible evidence to secure convictions beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the Senate report came out in December, the Justice Department again held that it would not be seeking to prosecute any participants of the CIA-run covert program for their actions. There was no new evidence presented in the Senate report, the department stated, and so there was no need to revisit its former decision not to prosecute.

Also this Monday, at a review session before the U.N. Council on Human Rights, the Obama administration had to face a tough reckoning from more than 12 U.N. member states over its refusal to investigate and punish those responsible for torture through the mid-2000s.

The Bush administration’s turn to coercive interrogation techniques, from sleep deprivation to mock executions to rectal rehydration, will surely be remembered as a dark stain in U.S. history. For McCain, the goal is to make sure that history does not repeat.

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” the Republican said on the Senate floor in December. “I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”

Sean Gardner/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Whether Congress can instigate serious reforms to promote interrogation techniques that respect detainees’ fundamental rights and enjoy public oversight remains to be seen.

Images: Getty Images (5)