Coming months after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s scathing report on the CIA’s practice of detaining and torturing suspected terrorists, the Senate voted 78-21 today to pass a measure banning torture. The McCain-Feinstein amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2016 would prohibit the government from waterboarding suspects, conducting mock executions or using any other extreme techniques during an interrogation. The legislation still requires approval by the House as part of the full defense authorization before going to the president’s desk. If the NDAA FY2016 is signed by the president, the McCain-Feinstein amendment would codify into law an executive order signed by President Obama in 2009 that made it illegal for the US government to engage in torture, thus preventing a future president from reversing the Obama administration’s action.
Although torture is already illegal in the United States, the amendment is “crucial” according to human rights advocates, because it gets specific. Rather than allowing administration lawyers like John Yoo to define what torture is, and therefore invent “legal” “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the amendment prohibits government officials, including intelligence agents, from using interrogation techniques not specified in the Army Field Manual. It also requires the Manual be updated to comply with U.S. legal obligations and reflect “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 amendment also includes transparency provisions that mandate any revisions to the manual be done in the open, and gives the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to all detainees held in U.S. custody. Earlier this year, a poll on Americans’ attitudes towards torture found more than two-thirds of respondents said they support strengthening laws against the use of torture. Human rights groups that have harshly condemned the CIA’s history of brutal interrogations cheered the measure.
“A decade after the atrocities of the CIA torture program, today’s vote reinforces that the U.S. unequivocally rejects torture as illegal and unacceptable,” said Naureen Shah director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program. While applauding the amendment advocates noted that work remains to be done, especially in holding accountable those who broke the law and committed torture. “Requiring the CIA and other US agencies to abide by one uniform set of interrogation rules will help prevent torture,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “But such legal fixes won’t carry weight in the future if those responsible for torture in the past aren’t brought to justice.”