Thursday, December 15, 2005

Pentagon denies undermining torture legislation

Pentagon denies undermining torture legislation

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon denied on Wednesday that it was trying to torpedo legislation intended to assure humane treatment of prisoners and said it had not completed a new directive on U.S. military interrogation of detainees.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita responded to a New York Times report that the Army this week approved classified interrogation techniques that could complicate talks between Congress and the White House on legislation to ban torture and other inhumane treatment.

Di Rita refused to discuss details of long-awaited changes in the Army field manual, which the Pentagon earlier said would include a ban on using guard dogs to intimidate detainees.

But "it way overstates the Army's position to say that they are done and now somebody else is working on it," Di Rita told reporters. "This is a document of the Department of Defense, not of the Department of the Army."

When asked if senior Pentagon officials were trying to pressure the Army to set rules that it might not fully support, the spokesman said, "It's immensely irresponsible to characterize it that way."

The United States has faced sharp criticism from rights groups and foreign governments over its treatment of prisoners in its declared war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq, because of reports of abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The issue boiled up again in recent weeks amid White House efforts to limit the scope of planned legislation banning abuse of detainees, and a newspaper report last month that the CIA has run secret prisons abroad.

The New York Times said the new addendum had been approved by the service and sent to Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone for further approval. Di Rita confirmed that Cambone was among those studying the matter but that it was not complete.

Army officials told the New York Times that the addendum required interrogators to comply with the Geneva Conventions, but they did not give the newspaper examples of specific interrogation techniques authorized in the new guidelines.

The newspaper said some military officials argued that the move could be perceived as pushing the limits on legal interrogation and might anger Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose legislation banning "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of detainees passed the Senate 90-9 in October over White House objections.


Defense officials told Reuters that there was some concern that McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, would see the new guidelines as an attempt to weaken the amendment, which sets the Army field manual as the legal standard for interrogations by the American military.

"Apparently people are out pushing this notion that we are somehow trying to get in under the wire. And that just couldn't be further from the truth," Di Rita said.

McCain told reporters he was seeking a briefing on the guidelines. But he said they would not affect negotiations with the White House on his amendment.

"The field manual would flow from this rather than vice versa. If we pass this legislation then it would make it pretty clear what would have to be in the field manual," McCain said.

With Congress scrambling to complete its business in the next few days to adjourn for the year, McCain said his negotiations with the White House were "very intense."

The White House, which has argued that putting anti-torture rules into law would hamper interrogators' ability to obtain information from prisoners by making them less fearful, is seeking some protections from prosecution for interrogators.

McCain contends that would undermine his amendment. "We will not grant immunity. There will be no immunity for anyone," he said.

(additional reporting by Vicki Allen)