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INSIDE POLITICS
Inside Politics

The persistence of John McCain

Senator: Humane treatment due all detainees 'no matter how evil'

By Bill Schneider
CNN Washington Bureau

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Opinion
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Acts of terror
John McCain

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's been almost two years since the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light.

This week, the logjam that thwarted congressional attempts to outlaw such abuses was broken -- thanks to one senator and his political Play of the Week.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, knows about torture.

This year, he proposed an amendment to a defense bill that would ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.

"We should do it ... because we're American and because we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment no matter how evil or terrible they may be," McCain said on the Senate floor last month.

Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied against McCain's measure, arguing that CIA agents should be exempt from such a ban.

The Senate passed McCain's amendment 90 to 9. The House resisted. Republican leaders claimed the measure was legally unnecessary.

Stalemate. Until Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Europe this week and found herself forced to defend allegations that the U.S. sends, or renders, its detainees to secret prisons in countries that practice torture.

"Where appropriate the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured," Rice said at one point during her trip.

"Where appropriate"? "Seeks assurances"? Not very definitive.

Rice faced a firestorm of international criticism.

"I have had discussions with our allies about the importance of our intelligence activities and taking terrorists off the streets," she said.

President Bush was forced to weigh in: "We do not render to countries that torture."

Finally, the wall of resistance in the House crumbled. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told CNN that McCain's amendment would be "strongly manifested" in the final defense bill.

The breakthrough is a tribute to McCain's persistence. Yes, the senator argued, terrorists are evil people. "But this isn't about who they are. It's about who we are," he said.

And it's about who McCain is -- the winner of the political Play of the Week.

As for the debate over whether torture produces good intelligence, consider this revelation Friday in The New York Times.

According to the Times, the Bush administration based its assertions of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda on a detainee who later said he lied to avoid torture while he was being held in Egypt. The CIA had already discredited his information last year.

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