John McCain Leading Quiet Effort To Include Torture Laws In Defense Authorization

McCain Leading Quiet Effort To Include Torture Laws In Defense Authorization
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 5,2015, before a GOP luncheon. (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 5,2015, before a GOP luncheon. (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)

WASHINGTON -- Almost six months after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its gruesome summary report on the CIA's post-9/11 torture program -- and six years since the program was formally ended -- Congress may finally tighten the screws on prohibitions against torture.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) confirmed to The Huffington Post on Monday that he is quietly working to include certain prohibitions against torture in this year's National Defense Authorization Act, the must-pass annual defense spending measure that's still in the works in the Senate.

"It's a very combustible issue, so I'm trying to work through it carefully," he said.

McCain would not say exactly which torture provisions he is attempting to insert into the NDAA, though he did say he is working off the legislative proposal of Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein, who led the torture report effort during her time as the panel's chair.

The California Democrat confirmed to HuffPost that the two are working together.

"Senator McCain and I have been discussing ways to implement recommendations from the torture report since the end of last year," Feinstein said. "I'm hopeful we can enact new laws that will prohibit the use of coercive interrogation techniques once and for all."

Feinstein had announced in late December that she intended to introduce a bill at the beginning of this Congress to prevent the use of torture, though it has not yet been formally submitted. Her proposed legislation would include explicit prohibitions against the CIA detaining terror suspects and against the use of harsh interrogation techniques. It also would establish the Army Field Manual as the exclusive listing of U.S. interrogation methods, and would require the Red Cross to have access to all detainees in U.S. custody.

That McCain is working to include torture prohibitions in this year's NDAA marks a notable victory for the Feinstein camp. Advocates and staff have been working feverishly behind closed doors for months to enlist the support of the former prisoner of war and, even as of recently, McCain wasn't sold.

Just weeks ago, a source familiar with McCain's position told HuffPost that the senator was on the fence over whether he would sign onto Feinstein's proposal. "There are concerns," the source had said, expressing a lack of optimism that the two would reach a consensus.

As one of the few Republican critics of the CIA's program, McCain would be the last best hope for getting any aspect of Feinstein's now-token torture legislation through a Senate with a Republican majority -- and his refusal to support it would very likely be the nail in its coffin, at least until the chamber switches parties again.

The source would not say which parts of Feinstein's proposal McCain is concerned about, and McCain would not elaborate on Monday.

Even if the Republican senator does succeed in including certain elements of Feinstein's proposal in the NDAA, the changes are unlikely to placate torture critics. But with a skeptical Republican Party now holding the reins in Congress, that may be the most those critics can hope for in the immediate future.

Feinstein's proposal, even taken as a whole, received a decent amount of criticism from human rights groups and advocates. Her proposal didn't go far enough, nor did it address the systemic issues that allowed shoddy Justice Department opinions to back the flawed post-9/11 CIA program, advocates said.

"[The legislation] was a step forward," said Alberto Mora, former general counsel for the Navy and one of the few George W. Bush-era officials who rejected the use of torture.

"[But] I think the problem is not so much legislative," he added, noting it's really systemic, and the only way to firmly close the door on torture is for the Justice Department to clearly indicate that the CIA's prior use of torture was illegal.

"We as a nation are continuing to be uncertain as to where these boundaries are. And that is, I think, the most significant problem," Mora said.

The Justice Department has faced renewed pressure in recent days to take another look at the evidence amassed in the Intelligence Committee's 6,900-page report, the majority of which remains classified.

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