President George W. Bush said Saturday he vetoed legislation that would ban the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding to break suspected terrorists because it would end practices that have prevented attacks.
"The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror," the president said in his weekly radio address taped for broadcast Saturday. "So today I vetoed it."
The bill provides guidelines for intelligence activities for the year and includes the interrogation requirement. It passed the House in December and the Senate last month.
"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," the president said.
Supporters of the legislation say it would preserve the United States' ability to collect critical intelligence, and raise the country's moral standing abroad.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress would work to override Mr. Bush's veto next week. "In the final analysis, our ability to lead the world will depend not only on our military might, but on our moral authority," said Pelosi, a California Democrat.
But based on the margin of passage in each chamber, it would be difficult for the Democratic-controlled Congress to turn back the veto. It takes a two-thirds majority, and the House vote was 222-199 and the Senate's was 51-45.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Mr. Bush often warns against ignoring the advice of U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq. Yet the president has rejected the Army Field Manual, which recognizes that harsh interrogation tactics elicit unreliable information, said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
"Democrats will continue working to reverse the damage President Bush has caused to our standing in the world," Reid said.
"Torture is a black mark against the United States," said California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. "We will not stop until (the ban) becomes law."
Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Bush "will go down in history as the torture president" for defying Congress and allowing the CIA to use interrogation techniques "that any reasonable observer would call torture."
"The Bush administration continues to insist that CIA and other nonmilitary interrogators are not bound by the military rules and has reportedly given CIA interrogators the green light to use a range of so-called 'enhanced' interrogation techniques, including prolonged sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, and exposure to extreme cold," Daskal said. "Although waterboarding is not currently approved for use by the CIA, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has refused to take it off the table for the future."
In a statement on Friday, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "Unless Congress overrides the veto, it will go down in history as a flagrant insult to the rule of law and a serious stain on the good name of America in the eyes of the world."
He noted that the Army field manual contends that harsh interrogation is a "poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts and can induce the source to say what he thinks the (interrogator) wants to hear."
The intelligence bill would limit CIA interrogators to the 19 techniques allowed for use by military questioners. The Army field manual in 2006 banned using methods such as waterboarding or sensory deprivation on uncooperative prisoners.
Mr. Bush said the CIA must retain use of "specialized interrogation procedures" that the military does not need. The military methods are designed for questioning "lawful combatants captured on the battlefield," while intelligence professionals are dealing with "hardened terrorists" who have been trained to resist the techniques in the Army manual, the president said.
"We created alternative procedures to question the most dangerous al Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of attacks planned on our homeland," Mr. Bush said. "If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the field manual, we could lose vital information from senior al Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives."
The CIA director said in a memo Saturday to agency employees that it is not a choice between a "blanket application of the Army Field Manual or the legalization of torture."
The manual "does not exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques," Mike Hayden wrote. "There are methods in CIA's program that have been briefed to our oversight committees, (that) are fully consistent with the Geneva Convention and current U.S. law, and are most certainly not torture."
He said military and intelligence missions are different. Hayden described the CIA program as a "tightly controlled and carefully administered national option that goes beyond the Army Field Manual" and has been a "lawful and effective response" to the threat of terrorism. "It will continue to be so as we work within the boundaries established by our nation's laws," he wrote.
The 19 interrogation techniques allowed in the Army Field Manual include the "good cop/bad cop" routine; making prisoners think they are in another country's custody; and separating a prisoner from others for up to 30 days.
Among the techniques the field manual prohibits are:
- hooding prisoners or putting duct tape across their eyes.
- stripping prisoners naked.
- forcing prisoners to perform or mimic sexual acts.
- beating, burning or physically hurting them in other ways.
- subjecting prisoners to hypothermia or mock executions.
But waterboarding is the most high-profile and contentious method in question.
It involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. It has been traced back hundreds of years to the Spanish Inquisition and is condemned by nations around the world and human rights organizations as torture.
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 includes a provision barring cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for all detainees, including CIA prisoners, in U.S. custody. Many people believe that covers waterboarding.
There are concerns that the use of waterboarding would undermine the U.S. human rights efforts overseas and could place Americans at greater risk of being tortured when captured.
The military specifically prohibited waterboarding in 2006. The CIA also prohibited the practice in 2006 and says it has not been used since three prisoners were subjected to it in 2003.
But while some Bush administration officials have questioned the current legality of waterboarding, the administration has refused to rule definitively on whether it is torture. Mr. Bush has said many times that his administration does not torture.
The White House says waterboarding remains among the interrogation methods potentially available to the CIA.
"Because the danger remains, we need to ensure our intelligence officials have all the tools they need to stop the terrorists," Mr. Bush said.
Meanwhile, Newsweek reported earlier this week that the Canadian government is refusing to use testimony from alleged al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah in its prosecution of two terror suspects, because the testimony was acquired during CIA interrogations in which Zubaydah was waterboarded.
Newsweek quotes a Canadian spokesman as saying that the director of the nation's intelligence service finds torture "morally repugnant and not particularly reliable," and that information obtained through torture is not knowingly used.