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Feinstein Proposal Would Lock In Anti-Torture Measures


On President Obama's third day in office, he issued a sweeping executive order. It banned the use of torture by U.S. officials or at any facilities under American control. The order was a public rejection of the CIA's interrogation methods during the George W. Bush administration, methods spelled out in a recent Senate report. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein led that review. Now she's concerned that President Obama's order banning torture might one day be reversed. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Late last month, Senator Feinstein sent President Obama a letter. It listed a number of things Congress and his administration could do which, she wrote, were, quote, "intended to make sure that the United States never again engages in actions that you have acknowledged were torture."

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I think they are recommendations that should be implemented. They're not way out in left field or way out in right field. They're very practical and, I think, necessary.

WELNA: Practical because she would limit interrogations to what's already done by the military - necessary, Feinstein says, because Obama's decree banning torture remains in effect only as long as he's president.

FEINSTEIN: The thing is, the president has an executive order, as you know. But that's not binding on other administrations.

WELNA: Indeed, use of what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, and what many others call torture, does not appear to be entirely off the table. CIA Director John Brennan, responding to last month's Senate report, insisted he fully supported the president's ban on the use of EITs. But Brennan suggests that such methods may be called for again.


JOHN BRENNAN: We are not contemplating at all getting back into the detention program, using any of those EITs. So I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis.

WELNA: Nine years ago, following revelations that the CIA was sending suspected terrorists to be interrogated at secret facilities abroad, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain pushed a measure through Congress known as the Detainee Treatment Act. It's the law today. It forbids the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners. And it requires that military interrogators use only techniques permitted by the Army Field Manual. But Feinstein says that measure has loopholes. Her legislation, which she plans to introduce this week, aims to close them. McCain, who was himself tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, says he supports Feinstein.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Yeah, I'm with her. I'm with her. I'm with her. I'm with her.

WELNA: But it's not clear how many of McCain's fellow Republicans, who now control Congress, are also with Feinstein. Idaho's Jim Risch is a member of the Intelligence Committee.


SENATOR JIM RISCH: There were laws at the time this was done. There are laws on the books today. And unfortunately, what I find in Washington, D.C. is no matter what happens, people want to pass more laws.

WELNA: Feinstein wants to codify some key measures from President Obama's executive order from six years ago. She proposes limiting U.S. spy agencies, as with the military, to only those interrogation techniques in the Army Field Manual - another idea, prohibit the CIA from holding suspects for long periods of time. Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe sees no need for what Feinstein's proposing.


SENATOR JIM INHOFE: I want to get results. I want to get these guys nailed so they're not killing Americans. So if it - I disagree with her.

WELNA: Beyond the uncertain prospects for Feinstein's proposals on Capitol Hill, some activist groups say a larger problem is that CIA interrogators have faced no legal consequences. Katherine Hawkins is a national security fellow at openthegovernment.org.

KATHERINE HAWKINS: No prosecutor will go after the CIA. No Justice Department will do that. No president will prosecute abuses that his predecessor approved. On some level, there's nothing Congress can do about that.

WELNA: Nor is it clear, especially after last week's Paris attacks, that this Congress would do anything, even if it could. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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