'Too Little, Too Late, Better Than Nothing': Torture Ban Passes Senate Despite GOP Opposition

The U.S. Senate’s Tuesday passage of a limited ban on torture is being met with mixed enthusiasm from human rights advocates, who alternately praise it as a “historic” victory and “too little, too late, but better than nothing.”

Co-authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act passed 78 to 21, with all those voting against the torture prohibition coming from the Republican Party.

“Such legal fixes won’t carry weight in the future if those responsible for torture in the past aren’t brought to justice.”
—Laura Pitter, Human Rights Watch

The legislation requires that U.S. government agencies—including the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon—only use interrogation and detention tactics permitted in Army Field Manual 2-22.3 and mandates that the Red Cross be given access to people detained in U.S. custody.

If passed, the amendment would codify a 2009 executive order from President Barack Obama aimed at eliminating acts of torture, including what is euphemistically referred to as waterboarding. Rights advocates have been concerned that a future administration would seek to overturn this presidential decree.

However, there is a key problem with Tuesday’s legislation. Appendix M of the Army Field Manual permits use of tactics—including sleep and sensory deprivation—that many, including the United Nations Committee Against Torture, have warned entail torture or inhumane treatment.

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The appendix “could conceivably be read as permitting techniques like the now banned so-called ‘frequent flier program,’ in which detainees were moved continuously between cells to deprive them of sleep and keep them disorientated, 112 times in 14 days in one documented case,” wrote Slate journalist Joshua Keating on Tuesday.