WASHINGTON -- A leading Republican senator yesterday said that the Bush administration is making ''a terrible mistake" in opposing a congressional ban on torture and other inhuman treatment of prisoners in US custody.
Senator Chuck Hagel, considered a potential presidential candidate in 2008, said many Republican senators support the ban proposed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
The ban was approved by a 90-to-9 vote last month in the Senate and added to a defense spending bill. The White House has threatened a veto, but the fate of the proposal depends on House-Senate negotiations that will reconcile different versions of the spending measure. The House version does not include the ban.
Vice President Dick Cheney has lobbied Republican senators to allow an exemption for those held by the CIA if preventing an attack is at stake.
''I think the administration is making a terrible mistake in opposing John McCain's amendment on detainees and torture," Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said on ''This Week" on ABC. ''Why in the world they're doing that, I don't know."
McCain, citing the Senate vote as well as support from the public and from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and others with government service, said he will push the issue with the White House ''as far as necessary."
''We need to get this issue behind us," McCain said on ''Fox News Sunday." ''Our image in the world is suffering very badly, and one of the reasons for it is the perception that we abuse people that we take captive."
Mistreatment of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and allegations of mistreatment at the US-run camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have drawn withering criticism from around the world. Human rights organizations also contend that the United States sends detainees to countries that it knows will use torture to try to extract intelligence information.
When the White House failed to kill the antitorture provision while it was pending in the Senate, it began arguing for an exemption in cases of ''clandestine counterterrorism operations conducted abroad, with respect to terrorists who are not citizens of the United States."
The president would have to approve the exemption, according to the administration proposal, and any activity would have to be consistent with the Constitution, federal law and US treaty obligations.
Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he supports the vice president's efforts to gain a CIA exemption. While contending that the administration opposes torture, Hatch said, ''They're going to use everything in their power to make sure that our citizens in the United States of America are protected."
Appearing with Hatch on CBS's ''Face the Nation," Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners ''is not what America is all about. Those aren't the values that we're fighting for."
Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said his vote against the ban does not mean that he favors torture.
He rejected Durbin's comments as ''not really relevant to what we are trying to do to detain and interrogate the worst of the worst so that we can save American lives."