President backs off detainee treatment

Bush drops part of plan on prisoner interrogations

September 22, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush backed down yesterday in the face of a Republican revolt over his counterterrorism policies, dropping a key element of his push to authorize harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects.

The deal between the White House and dissident Republicans led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona clears the way for election-year votes as early as next week on Bush's measure setting up military commissions to try detainees. It was the second time in less than a year that the president was forced to surrender to McCain - a former prisoner of war who was tortured by the North Vietnamese - in a fight over the treatment of those captured by the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush's showdown with members of his party ended with his agreement to scrap a proposal that would have essentially narrowed U.S. adherence to international anti-torture standards contained in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

After Republican senators announced the deal at the Capitol, Bush said the revised plan would allow the continuation of a CIA secret prisons program where terrorism suspects are questioned using harsh methods short of torture. Bush had said he would have to close the prisons if he didn't get his way on the issue.

The Bush plan would also create a trial system for 14 "high-value" terrorism suspects, including alleged planners of the 9/11 attacks, who were held by the CIA before being transferred to a U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The agreement preserves the "single most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks," Bush said at a hastily called appearance in Orlando, Fla., where he was raising money for Republican candidates.

The deal "clears the way to do what the American people expect us to do: to capture terrorists, to detain terrorists, to question terrorists, and then to try them," he said.

Despite the White House's celebratory tone, it was a mixed outcome for Bush.

The deal cleared a major obstacle that could have thwarted his strategy to draw stark distinctions with Democrats over anti-terror measures. Senate Republicans now appear united in support of Bush's measure and ready to turn their attention from the intramural fight to one pitting them against Democrats.

But the negotiations in recent days pointed up a lack of support for Bush's security policies among some Republicans who are trusted voices on such matters.

House Republicans, usually accommodating to Bush's legislative wishes, underlined the skepticism Wednesday, when they had to resort to last-minute parliamentary gamesmanship to win committee approval of a military commissions measure.

The Senate agreement came after a 90-minute negotiating session in the Capitol office of Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, capping a week of intense haggling between Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, and a trio of rebellious Republicans - Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and McCain.

The breakthrough came when the White House agreed to drop language that would have substituted a ban enacted at McCain's insistence last year on "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of detainees for a broader Geneva Convention prohibition against prisoner mistreatment.

Instead, Hadley said, the revised proposal would enumerate specific conduct - such as torture, mutilation and rape - that would count as war crimes under U.S. law and state that the president has authority to define through executive order his interpretation of Common Article 3.

"There is no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved," McCain said.

The deal also settled disputes about the structure of military commissions.

The White House initially proposed allowing prosecutors to deny terrorism suspects access to some evidence used against them. But Bush's side changed course and agreed with McCain's group that defendants must be able to see such information, including redacted versions of classified evidence.

Bush's team, which had sought trials where coerced statements could be used, struck a deal with the senators to limit the use of information extracted through harsh treatment.

Just last week, Bush suggested in a Rose Garden news conference that scrapping his proposal on the Geneva Conventions would force the CIA program to shut down. Some administration allies suggested yesterday that could still happen, depending on the wording and form of his executive order.

"Everything now depends on what the executive branch is going to do," said David Rivkin, a national security lawyer in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

He said that to preserve the CIA program, the president's executive order would have to be "public and explicit" about how he was interpreting the Geneva Conventions.

Several key players cautioned that the deal was far from sealed.

"Once the president puts signature to paper, that's when we'll have a deal," Warner said.

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