Friday, September 15, 2006

Defiant Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee bucked President Bush yesterday and approved a bill for detention and trial of foreign terrorism suspects that Mr. Bush says would compromise the war on terrorism.

The president insisted that he will not accept a bill that ties the CIA’s hands or puts classified information at risk, and urged Congress to pass a proposal similar to what he submitted instead.

Led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia, four Republicans joined the panel’s 11 Democrats to support a bill that gives terrorism detainees broader civil rights than Mr. Bush has proposed.

But most Senate Republicans, including the rest of the committee’s members, support the administration’s view that Mr. Warner’s bill would limit intelligence gathering and expose classified information to terrorists. They have vowed to fight it out on the Senate floor.

Mr. Warner said he crafted the measure carefully to meet the concerns of the Supreme Court. The high court earlier this year struck down Mr. Bush’s current setup for trying detainees held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“It would be a very serious blow to the credibility of the United States … if legislation passed by the Congress and signed by the president failed to meet a second Supreme Court review,” Mr. Warner said yesterday.

But Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and committee member, called that argument a “boogeyman” and insisted he would try to amend the bill to be more in line with the White House approach.

The administration last week publicly acknowledged a classified CIA interrogation program, which, officials said, has produced information that helped thwart at least eight terrorist plots since 2001. But the Supreme Court ruling leaves that program on tenuous ground, and Mr. Bush says it would have to end if Congress doesn’t approve new rules.

A Capitol Hill source said that after two weeks of fruitless negotiations with Mr. McCain, the White House has decided to instead have the fight in public and make its case directly.

The effort has kicked into high gear this week with CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden saying that without specific guidance, he would have to close down the interrogation program. The administration also released a letter from the military’s top lawyers saying guidance would be welcome, and a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying what the U.S. is doing makes sense.

The administration argues that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions has never been tested by the U.S. before, and provisions banning harsh treatment are vague. Mr. Bush wants a bill that lists exactly what is out of bounds.

Mr. Warner’s bill allows accused terrorists more access to classified evidence against them during military tribunals, and also rejects Mr. Bush’s definition of treatment of detainees.

The president visited with House Republicans yesterday to urge them to approve his approach, and House Republican leaders indicated they would. The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday passed a version acceptable to the White House in a bipartisan 52-8 vote.

Later, Mr. Bush said he “will resist” any bill that the CIA says would tie its hands.

“If there’s ambiguity, if there’s any doubt in our professionals’ minds that they can conduct their operations in a legal way, with support of the Congress, the program won’t go forward and the American people will be in danger,” he said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said both sides want the same thing.

“They got to figure out how to achieve it,” he said.

Mr. Cornyn said the two camps probably can resolve the issue of how to handle classified information, but the sticking point is the Geneva Conventions issue.

Mr. McCain said the White House wants to redefine the conventions, and doing so would invite international criticism.

“If you change the interpretation of it, you are changing a treaty,” he said, arguing that such a move could hurt U.S. agents by opening the door for other countries to interpret the treaty however they see fit.

“I believe then people would be turned over to the secret police,” he said.

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter this week saying that in trying to “redefine” part of the Geneva Conventions the administration was risking the “moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”

But Mr. Snow said Mr. Powell was confused about what the administration is trying to achieve.

“The whole purpose of this is to make sure that we place our troops out of harm’s way, and also the people who are doing the interrogations, by making clear what the standards are,” he said.

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