WASHINGTON -- In a landmark showing, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to outlaw the practice of torture and solidify a noncoercive method of intelligence interrogation, indicating a firm departure from the years of the Bush-era torture program -- a period that many have characterized as one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history.
The road to that symbolic vote, though, was not an easy one, despite still-simmering outrage after the December release of a gruesome Senate summary report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. Even in the days leading up to the vote, anti-torture advocates both on and off the Hill remained concerned that the CIA’s defenders would rally to tank the measure.
In an effort led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), senators voted in a landslide 78-21 to tack an amendment onto the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that would forbid the use of torture by any agent of the U.S. government and standardize certain noncoercive interrogation methods across the government’s military and intelligence arms.
The vote marked a profound, full-circle moment for Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has spent the better part of the past six years championing a 6,000-plus page committee report that exposed the dysfunction and abuse that plagued the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program.
“It really is a great day, because it really does mean never again,” Feinstein said leaving the chamber Tuesday, flanked by several committee staffers who helped compile the report. “It was a great moment for me, yes, and for us.”
A 500-page summary of the Intelligence Committee's report was released in December and detailed how agency officers used tactics such as waterboarding, rectal feedings and sleep deprivation against detained terror suspects at secret overseas prisons.
McCain, who experienced torture while a prisoner of war, has consistently broken with his Republican colleagues and railed against the CIA’s now-defunct program. He emerged in recent weeks as a powerful ally for the usually politically cautious Feinstein, who has championed the fight to pass a legislative ban against harsh interrogations in the wake of her committee’s report.
Indeed, the push for a ban has been riddled with political and operational landmines for Feinstein. She announced a last-ditch effort to pass anti-torture legislation immediately following the report’s release in December, but has run into problems as Senate control has switched to Republicans, many of whom continue to defend the Bush-era program.
Though McCain had proved to be a firm ally in Feinstein’s fight to release the report last year, it remained unclear even recently whether the notoriously fickle foreign policy hawk would back her effort.
Even since announcing last week that he would sponsor a joint anti-torture amendment with Feinstein, McCain has done little to quell those doubts. According to multiple sources both on and off the Hill, McCain spent the past two weeks desperately trying to stifle press attention of the provision.
Some supporters worried those efforts were setting the stage for him to quietly kill the amendment. But after the overwhelming swell of Republican support Tuesday, McCain’s tactics appeared to be strategic rather than nefarious: The Armed Services Committee chairman, some guessed, was worried his fellow Republicans wouldn’t back the amendment if there was a fanfare.
“I respect the dedication and services of those charged with protecting this country,” McCain said on the Senate floor just before the vote. “At the same time, 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.”
He may not have swayed all of his staunch Republicans. But in the moment of truth, McCain swayed enough.
“I’ll take 70-plus votes anytime,” a smiling Feinstein said after the vote.
This post has been updated with more background information on the amendment and the vote.