The House Democratic leadership stopped a vote Thursday night on the $50 billion classified intelligence budget after Republicans mounted a campaign against one of its provisions to ban degrading treatment of detainees and some moderate Democrats indicated they would not vote for the bill.
The Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, opposed what they saw as backdoor legislation that would impose fines and prison terms on intelligence officers who abuse captured terrorism suspects.
A Democratic House aide told The Washington Times that the leadership supported the amendment and urged the House Rules Committee to place it in a slate of provisions to the bill known as a managers amendment.
Courtney Littig, a spokeswoman for the House intelligence committee said, “To my knowledge the first time we learned of the McDermott amendment was when we received copies of the amendments from the Rules Committee [Wednesday] afternoon.” Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, was the original author of the provision, known as the Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Interrogation Prohibition Act of 2010.
The amendment would authorize federal sentences of up to life in prison for cruel interrogation if it led to a detainee’s death or other penalties for lesser offenses.
President Obama has used executive orders to ban all so-called enhanced interrogation techniques covered in the legislation. However, making the prohibition a law limits presidential authority should Mr. Obama ever seek to use the techniques in a national emergency, such as questioning someone who has information about a pending nuclear or chemical attack.
House lawmakers began debating the provision on the floor Thursday after the Senate extended by voice vote the provisions of the USA Patriot Act that would have expired on Sunday without legislative action. The provisions include roving wiretaps tapping lines related to an individual without explicit court approval for new phone lines. Also included are surveillance powers targeting lone-wolf terrorism suspects, and the authority of the federal government to seize assets and records in anti-terrorism probes.
The McDermott amendment would have outlawed measures such as threatening detainees, using prolonged isolation and applying duct tape over a prisoner’s eyes. It would also prohibit an interrogator from “using force or the threat of force to coerce an individual to desecrate the individual’s religious articles, or to blaspheme his or her religious beliefs, or to otherwise participate in acts intended to violate the individual’s religious beliefs.”
Rep. Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the amendment was far too vague, noting, “If a woman interviews a Muslim without a head covering, is that blasphemy?”
On the House floor, intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, said the amendment was only codifying what Mr. Obama already outlawed in his first executive orders after he took office in January 2009.
His spokeswoman, Ms. Littig, said, “At the end of the day this chairman believes this vote on the amendment is a vote of conscience.”
The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Jim McDermott, made a protest visit to Iraq in 2002 prior to the U.S. invasion. In 2008, a federal indictment against Muthanna Al-Hanooti, the man who arranged Mr. McDermott’s trip, said then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi intelligence service paid for the trip.
Mr. Hoekstra said he was concerned that the bill would make intelligence officers more risk-averse.
“In the intelligence community today, these folks already believe they are under attack by this administration, and this just reinforces this,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “This is outrageous. There has not been one minute of hearings or debates on this amendment, and you are putting something in an [intelligence] bill that could put officers in jail for life. What are you thinking?”
Last year, Mr. Obama authorized the disclosure of Justice Department memos that provided a legal rationale for waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and other enhanced interrogation techniques. He also released to the public a CIA inspector general’s report on the enhanced interrogation program that was used on avowed terrorist leaders such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and the chairman of Keep America Safe, a group that opposes making the enhanced interrogation illegal, said Democrats were threatening intelligence professionals.
“Democrats in Congress now want to threaten them with criminal prosecutions and deprive them of valuable tactics that protect America,” she said.
• Eli Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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