Senate votes to ban waterboarding and other forms of torture

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
The US Senate has voted to outlaw many forms of torture, including waterboarding, "rectal feeding," mock executions, hooding prisoners, and sexual humiliation in any sector of the US government.

By a vote of 78 to 21, the Senate agreed on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that limits the US government to interrogation and detention rules delineated in the US Army Field Manual. The amendment also requires that US officials immediately notify the International Red Cross in the event of an individual taken into US custody or control.

The amendment was introduced last week by Republican Sen. John McCain and is co-sponsored by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee released in December a report detailing harsh interrogation and torture methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

“We must continue to insist that the methods we employ in this fight for peace and freedom must always — always — be as right and honorable as the goals and ideals we fight for,” said McCain, the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”

The measure would also require that the Army Field Manual be updated every three years so that it is consistent with US law and "reflects current evidence-based best practices for interrogation designed to elicit reliable and voluntary statements that do not involve the use or threat of force.”

The Army Field Manual does allow interrogation methods such as stress positions and sleep deprivation that are “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,”according to a group of medical ethicists who wrote to the Obama administration calling for changes to the Manual in 2013.

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Human rights advocates applauded the amendment even though it is based on future prevention of torture – already illegal under domestic and international law – and not the prosecution of those responsible for torture following September 11, 2001.

“This is the U.S. Senate’s first vote on torture in years, and it’s a clear and necessary legislative repudiation of the CIA’s horrific abuses,”said Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director Steven W. Hawkins in a statement.

“Without this amendment, abuses committed in the name of national security, such as forced rectal feeding and mock burials, would be all too easy for the CIA to repeat in a climate of fear-mongering about terrorism.”

The US House must now vote on the amendment within the larger defense authorization bill, which sets budget and expenditure limits for the US Department of Defense.

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McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, spoke out against torture on the Senate floor prior to Tuesday's vote.

“I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners does not provide good, reliable intelligence,” he said. “I firmly believe that all people, even captured enemies, are protected by basic human rights.”

McCain previously sponsored the 2006 Detainee Treatment Act, which included a ban on waterboarding. President George W. Bush's administration effectively ignored the measure. Another effort to ban CIA torture in 2008 was vetoed by Bush.

"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," Bush said in March 2008.

In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee's released a 480-page executive summary of the roughly 6,000-page secret report on CIA practices. The summary contained the committee’s conclusions concerning post-9/11 tactics deployed by the CIA under the administration of US President George W. Bush in an attempt to gain intelligence from suspected terrorists. The panel’s probe lent to “critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight” and showed that the CIA undermined "societal and constitutional values that we are very proud of," according to then-committee chairwoman Feinstein.

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“Whether one may think of the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program, we should all agree that there should be no turning back to the era of torture,” Sen. Feinstein said Tuesday.

Torture techniques “corrode our moral standing, and ultimately they undermine any counterterrorism policies they are intended to support,” she added.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that a detainee currently held at the US military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was allegedly subject to forms of "enhanced interrogation techniques" beyond what was disclosed in the Senate report.

Majid Khan, now a government cooperating witness, was captured in Pakistan and held in a CIA "black site" from 2003 to 2006. Khan said interrogators poured ice water on his genitals, twice videotaped him naked, and repeatedly touched his "private parts," according to accounts recorded by his lawyers.

The American Psychologists Association, meanwhile, was accused in April of being complicit in the torture tactics used against US-held detainees. APA officials were in cahoots with members of the Bush administration, including CIA employees and contractors, as the government struggled to codify policies for its torture program, according to the report released by anti-torture critics including psychoanalyst and anti-war activist Stephen Soldz as well as Nathaniel Raymond and Steven Reisner, two members of the group Physicians for Human Rights.