FOR 18 months, Congress and the world have known that something has been terribly wrong at Guantanamo and in the detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops have tortured and killed detainees in violation of US and international law. Finally, the Senate has acted, by an impressive 90-9 vote, to end the confusion over the rules of military interrogation. Instead of threatening to veto the measure, as his staff has done, President Bush should embrace it as evidence that the military will correct abuses and hold itself to a high standard.
Two of the leaders of the push to better regulate the interrogation and treatment of prisoners have military backgrounds that give them a feeling for the issue that both Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lack. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona was a POW in Vietnam, where, he said Wednesday, he and his comrades suffering mistreatment ''took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies." Another sponsor is Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who served as a lawyer in the military.
The measure -- an amendment to a $440 billion military spending bill -- also has the support of former secretary of state Colin Powell, who has said it would help to address ''the terrible public diplomacy crisis created by Abu Ghraib." The president's former adviser Karen Hughes has tried to improve US standing in the Islamic world with a tour of the region, but passage of the McCain amendment, with its clear requirement that troops use only the interrogation techniques approved in the US Army Field Manual, would be far more effective than her barnstorming.
Further proof of the need for the amendment came with the recent statements by three members of the 82d Airborne Division that its soldiers had beaten and abused detainees in Iraq. One of the three is a captain who finally brought his allegations to Congress and Human Rights Watch after finding the Army unresponsive. The captain laid much of the blame for the abuse to confusion among troops about acceptable interrogation techniques. As McCain said Wednesday: ''We demanded intelligence without ever clearly telling our troops what was permitted and what was forbidden. And when things went wrong, we blamed and punished them."
Accountability for the lack of clarity goes right to Bush and the Justice and Defense departments. Since 2001, a flurry of ambiguous statements about the status of detainees has left soldiers in a netherworld where abuse was predictable. The Senate amendment should be adopted by the House as well. If Bush makes this the first veto of his presidency, he will be putting the United States officially on the wrong side of an important moral divide.