WASHINGTON — Civil rights groups on Tuesday implored lawmakers to oppose Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte's effort to expand forms of interrogation of suspected terrorists detained by the United States, arguing that her legislation threatens to condone torture and other inhumane treatment.
Invoking the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, more than 30 organizations said Ayotte's amendment to a defense bill would "dangerously roll back" restrictions on interrogation techniques that Congress overwhelmingly approved in 2005 by allowing interrogators to use new methods beyond those allowed in the Army Field Manual.
The groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, stressed that coercive techniques such as waterboarding damaged the U.S. image worldwide and undercut relationships with allies.
The amendment "threatens to reopen the door to cruel interrogation techniques that senior military officers and interrogation experts agree are unnecessary and counterproductive," the groups wrote.
In a statement Tuesday, Ayotte countered that the measure "specifically prohibits torture, requiring compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture. ... Under my amendment, our high-value detainee interrogation group would be able to gather intelligence from the worst terrorists in a manner that's consistent with American laws and values."
The amendment by the freshman New Hampshire senator would authorize new interrogation methods to collect intelligence beyond those established in the Army Field Manual, which specifically prohibits torture and degrading treatment. Ayotte's proposal would allow for a classified section to the manual, which civil rights groups say could be used to sanction more aggressive techniques.
Ayotte said that "terrorists shouldn't be able to view all of our interrogation practices online, and the measure I introduced fixes that glaring flaw."
A provision in the amendment would require that the methods comply with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 as well as the 1985 U.N. Convention. But the amendment also would supersede the executive order that President Barack Obama signed two days after taking office in 2009 that says prisoners "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and shall not be subjected to violence to life and person (including murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture), nor to outrages upon personal dignity (including humiliating and degrading treatment)."
That executive order also nullified interpretations of the law issued by President George W. Bush's Justice Department.
Three Senate Republicans have signed on to Ayotte's amendment – Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas.
Graham, in a Nov. 11 essay in the National Review, wrote that Obama's executive order was a "major mistake" and contended that the president's detention policies have made the country less safe.
The administration has argued that congressional micromanaging is unwarranted as it prosecutes the war on terror with such successes as the killing of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, two major blows to al-Qaida. Administration officials also say lawmakers are ignoring what counterterrorism experts have said they need for the fight, and specifically they argue that the Army Field Manual is sufficient.
The Senate resumes work on the sweeping defense bill next week and it already faces a veto threat over several provisions dealing with the handling of terrorist suspects
The White House and several senior Senate Democrats oppose a provision in the bill that would require military custody of suspected terrorists determined to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliate and involved in the planning or an attack on the United States. The legislation also would limit the government's authority to transfer detainees.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other administration officials argue that such steps would restrict the administration's ability to detain, interrogate and prosecute suspected terrorists.
The White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement last week saying it supported the broader defense bill but could not accept any legislation that "challenges or constrains the president's authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation."