WASHINGTON — President Bush reversed course on Thursday and accepted Sen. John McCain’s call for a law banning cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of foreign suspects in the war on terror.
Bush said the agreement will “make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.”
“It’s a done deal,” said McCain, talking to reporters outside the White House.
Under the deal, CIA interrogators would be given the same legal rights as currently guaranteed members of the military who are accused of breaking interrogation guidelines. Those rules say the accused can defend themselves by arguing it was reasonable for them to believe they were obeying a legal order.
“We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists,” McCain said earlier as he sat next to Bush in the Oval Office. “We have no grief for them, but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are. And I think this will help us enormously in winning the war for the hearts and minds of people throughout the world in the war on terror.”
An appeal from Cheney
The White House at one point threatened a veto if the ban was included in legislation sent to the president’s desk, and Vice President Dick Cheney made an unusual personal appeal to all Republican senators to give an exemption to the CIA.
But congressional sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the ban, and McCain, a former Navy pilot who was held and tortured for five and a half years in Vietnam, adopted the issue.
However, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told NBC News’ Mike Viqueira on Thursday that he plans to oppose McCain’s bill.
He said he would try preventing the measure from reaching a House vote unless he got White House assurances that the new rules would still allow “the same high level of effective intelligence gathering” as under current procedures.
But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Hunter’s counterpart in the Senate, was on board and appeared with Bush and McCain in the Oval Office. “We’re going to get there,” Warner said afterward. Officials said the ban would remain intact in the other bill, the final defense spending measure.
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The Republican maverick and the administration have been negotiating for weeks in search of a compromise, but it became increasingly clear that he, not the administration, had the votes in Congress.
Bush called McCain “a good man who’s honored the values of America.”
“We have worked very closely with the senator and others to achieve that objective as well as to provide protections for those who are the front line of fighting the terrorists,” Bush said.
As passed by the Senate and endorsed by the House, McCain’s amendment would prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held. It also would require that service members follow procedures in the Army Field Manual during interrogations of prisoners in Defense Department facilities.
In discussions with the White House, that language was altered to bring it into conformity with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That says that anyone accused of violating interrogation rules can defend themselves if a “reasonable” person could have concluded they were following a lawful order.
Officials say the language also now includes a specific statement that those who violate the standards will not be afforded immunity from civil or criminal lawsuits.
In recent weeks, the administration had sought to add language that would offer protection from prosecution for interrogators accused of violating the provision. But McCain rejected that, arguing it would undermine the ban by not giving interrogators reason to follow the law.
Earlier this year, the Senate included McCain’s original provisions in two defense bills, including a must-pass $453 billion spending bill that provides $50 billion for the Iraq war. But the House omitted them from their versions, and the bills have been stalled.
Negotiations intensified this week, with Congress under pressure to approve at least the spending bill before adjourning for the year.
Supporters of the provisions say they are needed to clarify current anti-torture laws in light of abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
They also say that passing such legislation will help the United States repair an image they say has been tarnished by the prisoner abuse scandal.
“The fog of law is finally lifting. America’s moral black eye is finally healing,” Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
The White House long has contended that the United States does not engage in torture.
NBC News contributed to this report.