Cheney's Lonely War on Terror

WASHINGTON -- Over the past year, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has waged an intense and largely unpublicized campaign to stop Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department from imposing more restrictive rules on the handling of terrorist suspects, according to defense, state, intelligence and congressional officials.

Last winter, when Senator John Rockefeller IV, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, began pushing to have the full committee briefed on the CIA's interrogation practices, Cheney called him to the White House to urge that he drop the matter, said three U.S. officials.

In recent months, Cheney has been the force against adding safeguards to the Defense Department's rules on treatment of military prisoners, putting him at odds with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England. On a trip to Canada last month, Rice interrupted a packed itinerary to hold a secure video teleconference with Cheney on detainee policy to make sure no decisions were made without her input.

Last week, Cheney showed up at a Republican senatorial luncheon to lobby lawmakers for a CIA exemption to an amendment by Senator John McCain that would ban torture and inhumane treatment. The exemption would cover the CIA's covert "black sites" in several East European democracies and other countries where key al-Qaida captives are being kept.

Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt declined to comment on the vice president's interventions or to elaborate on his positions. "The vice president's views are certainly reflected in the administration's policy," he said.

Increasingly, however, Cheney's positions are being opposed by other administration officials, including Cabinet members, political appointees and Republican lawmakers who once stood firmly behind the administration on all matters concerning terrorism.

Personnel changes in President George W. Bush's second term have added to the isolation of Cheney, who previously had been able to prevail in part because other key parties to the debate -- including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House counsel Harriet Miers -- continued to sit on the fence.

At the same time, Rice has emerged as an advocate for changing the rules to "get out of the detainee mess," said one senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions. Her top advisers are working on a package of proposals designed to address all controversial detainee issues at once, instead of dealing with them on a piecemeal basis.

A fundamental question lies at the heart of these disagreements: Four years into the fight, what is the most effective way to wage the campaign against terrorism?

Cheney's camp says the United States does not torture captives, but believes the president needs nearly unfettered power to deal with terrorists to protect Americans. To preserve the president's flexibility, any measure that might impose constraints should be resisted. That is why the administration has recoiled from embracing the language of treaties such as the UN Convention Against Torture, which Cheney's aides find vague and open-ended.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that unconventional measures -- harsh interrogation tactics, prisoner abuse and the "ghosting" and covert detention of CIA-held prisoners -- have so damaged world support for the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign that they have hurt the U.S. cause. Also, they argue, these measures have tainted core American values such as human rights and the rule of law.

"The debate in the world has become about whether the United States complies with its legal obligations. We need to regain the moral high ground," said one senior administration official familiar with internal deliberations on the issue, adding that Rice believed the current policy was "hurting the president's agenda and her agenda."

McCain's amendment would limit the military's interrogation and detention tactics to those described in the Army Field Manual, and it would prohibit all U.S. government employees from using cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.