The bill would require the CIA to adhere to the Army's field manual on interrogation, which bans waterboarding, mock executions and other harsh interrogation methods.
The interrogation procedure, which is recognized as a form of torture by making the subject think he's drowning, is banned by international law. It has been used by CIA interrogators on terrorism suspects, or by those to whom U.S. prisoners have been sent via rendition flights.
It was recently learned that the CIA ordered the destruction of videotapes of interrogations in which detainees were reportedly subjected to waterboarding and other harsh measures.
The legislation, part of a measure authorizing the government's intelligence activities for 2008, had been approved a day earlier by the House by a vote of 222-199, and sent to the Senate for what was supposed to be final action.
Senate opponents of that provision, however, discovered a potentially fatal parliamentary flaw: The ban on torture had not been in the original versions of the intelligence bill passed by the House and Senate. Instead, it was a last-minute addition during negotiations between the two sides to write a compromise bill, a move that could violate Senate rules. The rule is intended to protect legislation from last-minute amendments that neither house of Congress has had time to fully consider.
Although it's not unheard of for new language to be added in House-Senate negotiations and accepted anyway, the rules allow such a move to be challenged and the language stripped from the bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., placed a hold on the intelligence bill, preventing the Senate from voting on it while the challenge goes forward.
"I think quite frankly applying the Army field manual to the CIA would be ill-advised and would destroy a program that I think is lawful and helps the country," Graham said in an interview.
If the Senate were to approve a stripped-down authorization bill next week, it would then have to go back to the House for another vote.
The field manual amendment was pushed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and backed by two Senate Republicans, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Feinstein defended the provision and said the Senate should debate it. "The Army Field Manual has been an effective guide for the military," she said. "It was very carefully written and reviewed. It has not come under criticism, unlike the constant criticism in the CIA arena .... It is my belief that America is not well-served by torture."
The White House threatened to veto the bill this week over the interrogation restrictions and a list of other issues. The CIA denies that it tortures detainees.
The Army field manual, adopted in 2006, prohibits forcing detainees to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over detainees' heads or duct tape over their eyes; beating, shocking, or burning detainees; threatening them with military dogs; exposing them to extreme heat or cold; conducting mock executions; depriving them of food, water, or medical care; and waterboarding.
The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners but has not used the technique since 2003, according to a government official familiar with the program who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. CIA Director Michael Hayden prohibited waterboarding in 2006.
The White House gave the CIA special latitude to conduct harsh or "enhanced" interrogations in 2002.