WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday he vetoed legislation that would ban the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding to break suspected terrorists because it would end practices that have prevented attacks.
"The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror," Bush said in his weekly radio address taped for broadcast yesterday. "So today I vetoed it."
The bill provides guidelines for intelligence activities for the year and includes the interrogation requirement. It passed the House in December and the Senate last month.
"This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," the president said.
Supporters of the legislation say it would preserve the United States' ability to collect critical intelligence and raise country's moral standing abroad.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress would work to override Bush's veto next week. "In the final analysis, our ability to lead the world will depend not only on our military might, but on our moral authority," said Pelosi, Democrat of California.
But based on the margin of passage in each chamber, it would be difficult for the Democratic-controlled Congress to turn back the veto. It takes a two-thirds majority, and the House vote was 222-199; the Senate's 51-45.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Bush often warns against ignoring the advice of US commanders on the ground in Iraq. Yet the president has rejected the Army Field Manual, which recognizes that harsh interrogation tactics elicit unreliable information, said Reid.
"Democrats will continue working to reverse the damage President Bush has caused to our standing in the world," said Reid, Democrat of Nevada.
Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said Bush "will go down in history as the torture president" for defying Congress and allowing the CIA to use interrogation techniques "that any reasonable observer would call torture."
"The Bush administration continues to insist that CIA and other nonmilitary interrogators are not bound by the military rules and has reportedly given CIA interrogators the green light to use a range of so-called 'enhanced' interrogation techniques, including prolonged sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, and exposure to extreme cold," Daskal said. "Although waterboarding is not currently approved for use by the CIA, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has refused to take it off the table for the future."
The intelligence bill would limit CIA interrogators to the 19 techniques allowed for use by military questioners. The Army field manual in 2006 banned methods such as waterboarding or sensory deprivation on uncooperative prisoners. Bush said the CIA must retain use of "specialized interrogation procedures" that the military does not need.
The military methods are designed for questioning "lawful combatants captured on the battlefield," while intelligence professionals are dealing with "hardened terrorists" who have been trained to resist the techniques in the Army manual, Bush said.
"We created alternative procedures to question the most dangerous Al Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of attacks planned on our homeland," Bush said. "If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the field manual, we could lose vital information from senior Al Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives."
The CIA director said in a memo to agency employees that it is not a choice between a "blanket application of the Army Field Manual or the legalization of torture."
The manual "does not exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques," Mike Hayden wrote. "There are methods in CIA's program that have been briefed to our oversight committees, [that] are fully consistent with the Geneva Convention and current US law, and are most certainly not torture."
The 19 interrogation techniques allowed by the Army Field Manual include the "good cop/bad cop" routine and separating a prisoner from others for up to 30 days.