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Senate Panel Rebuffs Bush on Detainees
Bipartisan approval of the bill widening the rights of prisoners in the war on terrorism comes as Colin Powell rejects the president's policy.

LA Times | September 15, 2006
By Richard Simon, Julian E. Barnes and Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — A Republican-controlled Senate committee dealt a blow to President Bush's national security agenda Thursday, approving a bill that would expand the legal rights of terrorism detainees.

The rebuke capped a day of bruising political combat in which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a letter from Colin L. Powell, the president's former secretary of State, opposing Bush's proposal to allow more extreme methods of interrogation.

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell said, adding that Bush's proposal "would put our own troops at risk."

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved McCain's bill, 15 to 9. The panel's 11 Democrats joined four Republicans — McCain, Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine — to recommend that the full Senate adopt the bill. All the "no" votes were cast by Republicans.

The focus of the fight is Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which establishes basic protections that must be offered to all combatants — whether they are terrorists, warring tribes, insurgents or any other kind of irregular fighter.

The administration's bill would reinterpret that article to provide the same protections as those in the U.S. Constitution. The administration contends Common Article 3, which outlaws torture as well as "affronts to personal dignity," is too vague.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday that the administration was not trying to amend the Geneva Convention, but to "clarify" it. "No, we're not trying to change anything," Snow said. "We're trying to figure out what it means."

Powell's broad criticism of Bush's approach to terrorism surprised many in Washington.

And the rebuff to the White House by the Senate Armed Services Committee was a remarkable setback for Bush, who had seemed to be strengthening his political position in debate over national security policy.

Over the last week, the president had thrown Democrats on the defensive with a series of hard-hitting speeches on terrorism as his allies tried to cast doubt about whether Democrats were tough enough to meet the threat. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed that Bush's overall approval rating and marks on handling the war in Iraq had risen modestly.

But Thursday began with the president heading to Capitol Hill to rally his GOP troops and ended with the military tribunal fight that pitted Bush against senior members of his own party and against Powell.

Bush's allies released their own letters of support for the administration plan — including one from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and another from a group of five top military lawyers, some of whom previously opposed measures that are part of the president's proposal.

"Here you have a bunch of Republicans infighting," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It undermines the [Republican National Committee] effort to cast this election as a choice" between political parties when it comes to the war on terrorism.

The debate also has reopened divisions between the president and McCain. The senator was Bush's main challenger in the 2000 presidential primary and has been a frequent thorn in his side during Bush's tenure.

In this fight, McCain has said that the tribunal bill he supports has ample legal protections for interrogators. He has argued that reinterpreting Geneva would send a message that the United States was no longer following the accepted definitions of Common Article 3, giving other countries and armed groups an excuse to strip international protections from captured U.S. soldiers.

But without clarifying Geneva, said John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, the CIA would have to close down a program under which it interrogates high-value detainees. Intelligence officers would be unsure of the rules and could be exposed to prosecution or lawsuits, Negroponte said.

With moderate Republicans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats supporting McCain's bill, administration supporters conceded Thursday that Bush's proposal was unlikely to prevail in the Senate.

"We're fighting an uphill battle," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he hoped some Democrats supported the administration's proposal on the Senate floor. "I think there are a lot of Democrats who don't believe we need to give excessive rights to terrorists," he said.

The House Armed Services Committee has passed a bill that closely mirrors Bush's proposal. The full House is expected to approve its tribunal legislation next week.

Bush, after a private meeting with House GOP rank-and-file Thursday, praised lawmakers for advancing that chamber's tribunal legislation "in a bipartisan fashion that will give us the tools and wherewithal to protect this country."

If the full Senate adopts the Armed Services Committee recommendation — a strong possibility given the influence that McCain, a former prisoner of war, wields on detainee issues — it would set up difficult House-Senate negotiations with time running out in the congressional session.

The detainee legislation was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration's earlier rules for prosecuting accused terrorists, in part because the administration's system of military commissions violated Common Article 3 protections.

The White House has pressed Congress to enact its proposed legislation so that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected top leaders of Al Qaeda who are now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can be put on trial.

Common Article 3 protections long have been supported by U.S. military officers. But in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee released Thursday, the five active-duty judge advocates general came out in favor of the administration's bill.

Some retired military officers were surprised by the letter, since several of the same JAGs suggested during Senate testimony in July that they did not see a need to reinterpret Common Article 3.

The letter followed a meeting between the military lawyers and Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II, a close ally of Vice President Dick Cheney. Haynes and Cheney have opposed incorporation of Common Article 3 into Defense Department policy.

But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Haynes did not pressure the lawyers. "The notion that any of them would apply their name to something they didn't agree with is absurd," Whitman said.

And while Powell's public rejection of the White House view is unusual for a former Cabinet member, it had been clear for some time that the onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed with the administration's line on many points.

Powell had let it be known before his resignation in early 2005 that he had doubts about the war in Iraq. He indicated he had tired of clashes with Cheney and other hard-liners. He also conceded publicly that, because of the failures of the intelligence community, he had urged U.N. members in a high-profile speech to join forces against Saddam Hussein based on faulty evidence.

During his four years in office, Powell battled administration hawks on a variety of issues, including U.S. adherence to international norms.

He feared that the war in Iraq was damaging U.S. forces, and warned that the scandal surrounding the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had badly hurt America's moral standing in the world.

Many former military officers believe adherence to the Geneva Convention is a way to restore U.S. credibility, and they have been frustrated by what they see as the administration's continuing attempts to bypass the treaty.

"You can't rest with this administration," said Don Guter, a retired rear admiral and the former Navy judge advocate general. "Eternal vigilance. It is never over."

 

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