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McCain, White House deadlock on torture ban

Sen. John McCain and President Bush’s national security adviser met Wednesday to see if they could craft a compromise on McCain's proposed ban on torture of foreign terror suspects.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. John McCain and President Bush’s national security adviser remained at an impasse Wednesday over the senator’s proposed ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreign terrorism suspects.

“At this point, discussions are ongoing,” national security adviser Stephen Hadley told The Associated Press as he left McCain’s Capitol Hill office after a meeting that lasted just over an hour.

The ban on mistreatment of prisoners, and another provision standardizing the interrogation techniques used by U.S. troops, have stalled two defense bills in Congress, including a must-pass wartime spending measure.

House and Senate negotiators want to complete the bills before adjourning for the year. But they are waiting for the results of talks between McCain and the White House before moving forward. Any compromise could come this week, possibly as early as Wednesday.

McCain has had several telephone conversations with Hadley in the past few weeks while he’s been on a tour promoting a book. Their face-to-face meeting Wednesday took on added significance because of the time pressure Congress is under.

White House confidence
Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, expressed confidence that McCain and Hadley would “reach consensus.”

“The goal is the same here,” Hughes said on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “The goal is to make it very clear that the United States is a nation of laws and that we operate our detainee policy within our laws, within our international obligations and without torture.”

The Senate overwhelmingly approved McCain’s provisions, but they were not in the defense bills approved by the House, and House members have not yet voted on them. Congressional aides say it’s widely accepted they have enough support to pass in the House.

But House leaders have held off moving toward a vote until they get their cue from the White House, which has opposed the ban, saying torture is already against U.S. law. After initially trying to kill the provisions, the White House has more recently switched gears to lobby for an exemption to the ban for CIA officers.

Protection from prosecution?
McCain has said he won’t agree to changes that would undermine the provisions, which he argues are needed to clarify current anti-torture laws in light of abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and allegations of misconduct by troops at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. enclave in Cuba.

The administration fears the provisions could limit the president’s ability to stop a terrorist attack and it recently has sought to get McCain to agree to language that would offer some protection from prosecution for some interrogators accused of violating McCain’s provision.

But the senator has rejected that. Instead, he has offered to include language similar to that in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It would allow accused civilian interrogators — like military interrogators — to defend themselves if a reasonable person could have found they were following a lawful order about treatment of detainees.