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White House proposes retroactive war crimes protection

Moves to shield policy makers

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration drafted amendments to the War Crimes Act that would retroactively protect policy makers from possible criminal charges for authorizing any humiliating and degrading treatment of detainees, according to lawyers who have seen the proposal.

The move by the administration is the latest effort to deal with the treatment of those taken into custody in the war on terror.

At issue are interrogations carried out by the CIA and the degree to which harsh tactics such as water-boarding were authorized by administration officials. A separate law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, applies to the military. When interrogators engage in waterboarding, prisoners are strapped to a plank and dunked in water until nearly drowning.

One section of the draft would outlaw torture and inhuman or cruel treatment, but it does not contain prohibitions from Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions against ``outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

Another section would apply the legislation retroactively, according to two lawyers who have seen the contents of the section and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because their sources did not authorize them to release the information.

One of the two lawyers said that the draft is in the revision stage, but that the administration seems intent on pushing forward the draft's major points in Congress after Labor Day.

``I think what this bill can do is in effect immunize past crimes. That's why it's so dangerous," said a third lawyer, Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Fidell said the initiative is ``not just protection of political appointees, but also CIA personnel who led interrogations."

Interrogation practices ``follow from policies that were formed at the highest levels of the administration," said a fourth lawyer, Scott Horton, who has followed detainee issues closely. ``The administration is trying to insulate policy makers under the War Crimes Act."

A White House spokesman said Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions includes a number of vague terms that are susceptible to different interpretations.

The administration believes it is very important to bring clarity to the War Crimes Act so that those on the front lines in the war on terror ``have clear rules that are defined in law," said the White House spokesman.

Extreme interrogation practices have been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration.

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