Senators vote for rights of detainees

Move by Republican-dominated committee is a rebuke to Bush

September 15, 2006|By Richard Simon, Julian E. Barnes and Janet Hook | Richard Simon, Julian E. Barnes and Janet Hook,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A Republican-controlled Senate committee dealt a blow to President Bush's national security agenda yesterday, approving a bill that expands the legal rights of terrorism detainees. The rebuke capped a day of bruising political combat in which Bush traveled to the Capitol to seek support but was confronted by a stinging repudiation by his former secretary of state, Colin L. Powell.

In the debate over anti-terrorism legislation, the Bush administration expected to distinguish Republicans from Democrats on the crucial political issue of national security and provide its allies with an election-year boost. Instead, the controversy provoked an intra-party battle that has split the GOP.

That rift deepened yesterday when Powell waded into the debate. In a letter, he sided with Republicans who advocate stricter protections for terrorism detainees and warned against Bush's proposal, which allows for harsher treatment and 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 add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our troops at risk."

Powell's broad criticism of the president's approach to terrorism, underscoring the falling-out between Bush and his former top diplomat, surprised many in Washington.

The rebuff to the White House by the Senate Armed Services Committee was a remarkable setback for Bush just as he had seemed to be strengthening his political position in the debate over national security policy. Over the past week, Bush had thrown Democrats on the defensive with a series of hard-hitting speeches on terrorism, as his allies tried to cast doubt that Democrats were tough enough to meet the threat.

With only two months before the midterm elections, there were hints that Bush was beginning to succeed in getting political advantage from his relentless focus on security issues. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed that, after his series of speeches, Bush's overall approval rating and marks on handling the war in Iraq had risen modestly.

But yesterday, the day that began with the president sweeping up to Capitol Hill to rally his GOP troops in a closed-door meeting ended with a fight over military tribunals that pitted Bush not against Democrats, but against senior members of his own party.

Bush's allies released their own letters of support for the administration plan, including one from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and one from a group of top military lawyers.

The day's muddled results could undercut any political advantage the Republican National Committee had been seeking to cast the national security debate purely in partisan terms.

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

The debate also reopens divisions between the president and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, leader of the Republican critics of Bush's detainee proposal. McCain was Bush's leading opponent in the 2000 presidential primary and a frequent thorn in his side during his first term in the White House.

The center of the fight over detainees is the 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 redefine Common Article 3, to provide the same protections as 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 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."

Without clarifying Geneva, said John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, the CIA would be forced to close down a program under which it detains and interrogates so-called high-value detainees because intelligence officers would be unsure of the rules and could be exposed to prosecution or lawsuits.

But McCain said the bill he supports has ample legal protections for interrogators. He has argued that redefining 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.

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