The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to ban the U.S. from ever again subjecting prisoners to waterboarding, “rectal feeding” and other brutal interrogation practices widely condemned as torture.
In a 78-21 vote, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported a new prohibition on "enhanced interrogation" practices and other novel detention methods.
“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would limit the entire U.S. government to the interrogation and detention techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual. That would codify in law an executive order delivered by President Obama days after he entered office in 2009 and expand the scope of a 2005 law that limited the Pentagon — but not intelligence agencies such as the CIA — from engaging in the harsh interrogations.
The measure would also require the government to update the Army Field Manual every three years to make sure it both complies with U.S. law and "reflects current, evidence-based, best practices for interrogation." It would also require the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed "prompt" access to anyone detained by the U.S. government.
Among the GOP Senate opponents on Tuesday were Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Majority Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and firebrand conservative Tom Cotton (Ark.).
The vote split the chamber's White House hopefuls. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted in support of the bill, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another 2016 candidate, voted against it. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was not in attendance.
The move comes months after Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a scathing, 6,700-page report on the CIA’s former interrogation and detention program. Not only did the practices amount to torture, the committee claimed in an unclassified 500-page executive summary of the report, but the program was also ineffective and was obscured from its overseers in Washington.
“Whether one may think of the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program, we should all agree that there should be no turning back to the era of torture,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinA guide to the committees: Senate Dem: Trump's China trademark looks like a quid pro quo Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick MORE (D-Calif.), who led the push to release the report last year, said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote.
The practices “corrode our moral standing, and ultimately they undermine any counterterrorism policies they are intended to support,” she added.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has long been a vocal critic of the CIA's interrogation practices and spoke passionately against them on Tuesday.
“I know from personal experience that abuse of prisoners does not provide good, reliable intelligence,” he said. “I firmly believe that all people, even captured enemies, are protected by basic human rights.”
The Senate is scheduled to hold a procedural vote on the NDAA, which gives a blueprint for the nation’s defense powers, on Tuesday afternoon.
Opposition from some Democrats, however, could stall the bill. Some Democratic lawmakers object to GOP leaders’ use of budget maneuvers that they say skirt congressional budget caps on defense spending while keeping them in place for nondefense funds.
This story was updated at 12:54 p.m.