In a 78-21 vote, the Senate approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that bans inhumane and degrading torture—including waterboarding, feeding by rectal infusion, sexual humiliation, mock executions, and other methods—that had been developed and practiced by the CIA under the Bush administration after 9/11.
Designed to give permanence to an executive order issued by President Obama soon after he took office, the ban would limit interrogation and detention techniques to those outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual. Without the amendment’s conversion to law, the restrictions could only be “guaranteed for as long as a future president agrees to leave them in place,” explained Senator Dianne Feinstein, who co-sponsored the bill with Senator John McCain.
Feinstein called for support of the measure in order to “recommit ourselves to the fundamental precept that the U.S. does not torture—without exception and without equivocation—and ensure that the mistakes of our past are never again repeated in the future.”
Though the ban is largely viewed as an important step, its basis in guidelines in the Army Field Manual leaves room for improvement—sleep deprivation, stress positions, and other “cruel” and “inhuman” tortures are condoned. However, the amendment does dictate that the manual be updated every three years so that it “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 amendment also requires the Red Cross to be notified of, and have access to, every detainee—bringing the U.S. into long overdue accord with the Geneva Convention.
In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Feinstein chaired at the time, issued a sobering report describing in harrowing detail the CIA’s torture program following 9/11. According to the report, at least 26 people had been “wrongfully held” by the CIA. McCain, who experienced torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said that past practices had “compromised our values, stained our national honor and did little good.” He addressed the floor of the Senate prior to the vote, stating, “I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners does not provide good, reliable intelligence. I firmly believe that all people, even captured enemies, are protected by basic human rights.”
Steve Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, issued a statement following the Senate vote, saying:
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. 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.