- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Senate Democrats plan to use their newfound power to revisit one of the most contentious national security matters of 2006: Deciding what legal rights must be protected for detainees held in the war on terrorism.

In September, Congress passed a bill that gave President Bush wide latitude in interrogating and detaining captured enemy combatants. The legislation, backed by the White House, prompted more than three months of debate — exposing Republican fissures and prompting angry rebukes by Democrats of the administration’s interrogation policies.

With the Nov. 7 elections handing control to the Democrats, the issue is far from settled. A group of Senate Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, want to resurrect the bill to fix at least one provision they say threatens the nation’s credibility on human rights issues.

The proposed revisions to the bill could surface in the new Congress early in the year, staffers say — with new sympathetic ears in leadership and a slim Democratic majority in Congress.

Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who will take control of the Senate as majority leader next year, “would support attempts to revisit some of the most extreme elements of the bill” including language stripping detainees of habeas corpus rights, although no immediate action is planned, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Under the law, the president can convene military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects so long as he follows certain guidelines, such as granting defendants legal counsel and access to evidence used against them. The bill also for the first time provides specific definitions of abusive treatment of prisoners, prohibiting some of the worst abuses, such as mutilation and rape.

While the White House initially backed a harder line that would have left the president’s interrogation policies virtually unchecked, Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona insisted on language they said would protect U.S. international commitments on prisoner abuse.

But Mr. Specter and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, say a disturbing provision left in the bill specifically prohibits a detainee from protesting his detention in court. This provision barring habeas corpus petitions means that only detainees selected for trial by the military are able to confront charges against them, leaving a vast majority of the estimated 14,000 military detainees in custody without a chance to plead their case.

“I think the courts are going to declare that part of the legislation unconstitutional,” Mr. Specter said in an interview this month.

Mr. Leahy and other Democrats, led by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, have another proposal that would go much further by eliminating other provisions of the White House bill. Among other things, Mr. Dodd’s legislation would specifically bar coerced statements as testimony and limit the president’s authority in interpreting international standards for prisoner treatment.

In contrast, the bill signed by Mr. Bush in October allows coerced evidence under narrow circumstances and leaves it up to the president to implement Geneva Conventions standards.

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