President Bush yesterday abandoned his opposition to expanding a ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects, but only after winning legal protections for CIA interrogators.
The agreement was a victory for Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who for months has pushed for an expansion of the ban in spite of strong opposition from the White House, including threats of a veto.
"It's a done deal," Mr. McCain said after meeting with the president at the White House. He said the legislation would protect "all people, no matter how evil or bad they are."
The president said the proposal, which needs the approval of Congress, would "make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention [against] torture, whether it be here at home or abroad."
The White House had long opposed the proposal because it would subject civilian CIA interrogators to the same rules that constrain uniformed military personnel. Vice President Dick Cheney actively sought an exemption for the CIA and the White House threatened to veto any legislation that lacked such an exemption.
But Republicans in both the House and Senate supported Mr. McCain's proposal, placing intense pressure on an administration that was hurt last year by the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal.
Realizing he could not count on his own party, Mr. Bush demanded language that would grant the CIA interrogators the same legal protections as those afforded to uniformed military members.
National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley spent the past three weeks haggling with Mr. McCain over language in the proposal, especially one troublesome sentence that he declined to disclose. The negotiations, which he described as "long, deliberate, careful, thorough, intensive," concluded at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Yesterday, Mr. Hadley acknowledged the White House had sought an exemption for CIA interrogators.
"There was a discussion of immunity ... from civil and criminal prosecution," he said. "There are many times in law when the U.S. government gives immunity to people who are engaged in difficult, challenging positions."
But at "the end of the day," he added, the agreement hammered out with Mr. McCain "was the better balance."
Mr. Hadley said the final proposal satisfied the administration's three goals, which he listed as to "reaffirm a nation of laws, aggressively fight the war on terror, protect our people."
He emphasized that the part about protecting "our people" was not in the initial proposal.
"The original McCain amendment didn't address any of that," he said. "And that was a piece that the president felt was essential."
Thus, Mr. Hadley said the final product was the result of concessions on both sides.
"There's been a lot of things in the mix, things he wanted we couldn't do, things we wanted he couldn't do." he said. "It's been a long back-and-forth."
Conservatives were not impressed.
Legal scholar Mark Levin of the Landmark Legal Foundation called the McCain proposal "the al Qaeda Bill of Rights." He predicted it would subject U.S. soldiers to civilian courts.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said the proposal would harm Mr. McCain's expected run for the White House in 2008, but he acknowledged the Arizona Republican was relentless in pressuring the Bush administration.
"He wasn't going to back down," Mr. Limbaugh told his audience. "He's attached this to the defense appropriations bill, and the president, really, I think was up against a wall because money for the military runs out at the end of the year."
Mr. McCain said he hopes the legislation is passed in the next few days. One indication that he will succeed was the presence of Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, in the White House meeting between the president and Mr. McCain.
"We're going to get there," Mr. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of the effort to enact the proposal.