By Susan Crabtree - 02/26/10 01:00 AM EST
A controversial bill that would have levied criminal punishments on intelligence officers for harsh interrogations was pulled Thursday evening.
House Republicans charged Democrats with trying to sneak a provision into the intelligence authorization bill that would establish criminal punishment for CIA agents and other intelligence officials who engage in “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” during interrogations.
The provision, previously not vetted in committee, applied to “any officer or employee of the intelligence community” who during interrogations engages in beatings, infliction of pain or forced sexual acts. The bill said the acts covered by the provision would include inducing hypothermia, conducting mock executions or “depriving the [detainee] of necessary food, water, sleep, or medical care.”
The language gave Congress the discretion to determine what the terms mean, and it would have imposed punishments of up to 15 years in prison, and in some cases, life sentences if a detainee died as a result of the interrogation.
Republicans criticized the language and the way it was introduced.
“This will fundamentally change the nature of the intelligence community by creating a criminal statute governing interrogations,” said Rep. Pete Hoesktra (R-Mich.).
He added that it had appeared “out of nowhere” in a manager’s amendment.
“Would someone on the other side please explain the rationale behind this and why the majority was unwilling to have hearings on this issue?" he said.
On Thursday night, Hoekstra lauded the GOP effort against the bill.
"Republicans brought this to the attention of the American people, who were rightly outraged that Democrats would try to target those we ask to serve in harm’s way and with a unified push we were successful in getting them to pull the bill," Hoekstra said in a statement. "The annual intelligence bill should be about protecting and defending our nation, not targeting those we ask to do that deed and giving greater protections to terrorists."
Intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) added the language, originally offered by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), to his manager’s amendment, which makes several changes to the bill passed by committee.
Reyes and other Democrats argued that the language simple underscores existing anti-torture laws.
“I’m hearing from Republicans that we are somehow sacrificing our national security” through this bill, said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). She said the language underscores existing law and enhances national security.
Because Reyes included it in his manager's amendment, Republicans were not able to try to strike it from the bill before passage. The only recourse they had was to try to excise it during the House-Senate conference. The Senate version does not contain similar language.
Congress has not passed an intelligence authorization bill since 2004. Usually, the House does not consider the bill so late in the fiscal year, but Democrats in the House and Senate have stressed the importance of passing one this year to address a host of intelligence issues that have arisen.
House members had submitted 77 amendments to the bill as of Wednesday, but the House Rules panel allowed votes on only a handful of them.
Reyes’s manager’s amendment also included language that would change the rules governing executive branch notification to Congress about covert intelligence operations.
The issue of changing the notification process became a priority last year after a partisan fight over when and how Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was informed about the use of harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. The media spotlight grew hotter after a briefing in June when CIA Director Leon Panetta informed lawmakers that the agency had failed to notify them about plans for an assassination program begun in 2001 that was designed to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders.
The White House last year threatened to veto initial changes to congressional notification requirements that would have allowed the intelligence committee to write guidelines on when the administration could restrict briefings of congressional leaders on sensitive covert operations.
Such briefings were limited to the so-called Gang of Eight, the Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence panels.
Reyes has been working with the White House for months to write language that could avert a veto. The new language would allow the administration to limit the full committee’s access to information about sensitive operations only if the president submitted certification that an action met “extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States.”
The Senate version of the bill also included congressional notification language that drew a White House veto. It would require the full committee to be briefed broadly about any more detailed briefings provided to the Gang of Eight. The two chambers now must hash out their differences in conference.
Republicans tried to add language denying any money from being spent on moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S., requiring the director of national intelligence to submit a report detailing any steps taken to fix problems identified in the president’s Fort Hood intelligence review before the Christmas Day bombing attempt.
Hoekstra, as well as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), also tried to add language requiring the president to report to the congressional intelligence committees on the identities of U.S. citizens targeted for association by the CIA and others and establishing a process for authorization and notification of covert actions that could result in the death of a targeted citizen. Democrats did not allow votes on those amendments.
This story was updated from an earlier version