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White House, Senate resolute on detainee legislation

Standoff centers on prosecution and interrogation

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: John McCain, chairman John W. Warner, and Lindsey O. Graham.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: John McCain, chairman John W. Warner, and Lindsey O. Graham. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is standing firm in his battle to get Congress to approve the White House plan for detaining, interrogating, and prosecuting suspected terrorists. The Senate, though, isn't backing away from its plan, either.

The president's standoff with lawmakers is over legislation authorizing military tribunals and harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists.

In his radio address yesterday, Bush said his proposal provides clear rules for US personnel involved in detaining and questioning alleged terrorists held by the CIA.

``The information the Central Intelligence Agency has obtained by questioning men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has helped disrupt terrorist plots, including planned strikes inside the United States and on a US Marine base in East Africa, an American Consulate in Pakistan, and Britain's Heathrow Airport," Bush said, referring to the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

``This CIA program has saved American lives and the lives of people in other countries," Bush said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee defied Bush on Thursday and approved legislation the president has vowed to block.

The president's measure would go further than the Senate measure, allowing classified evidence to be withheld from defendants in terror trials and using coerced testimony. The legislation approved by the Senate panel also would change the law that interprets the nation's obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets the standard for treatment of war prisoners, so that harsh interrogations of detainees would not be questioned in court.

Three Republican senators -- John W. Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina -- oppose the legislation drafted by the White House, saying that barring a defendant from access to evidence, even if it is done under rare circumstances, would undermine the credibility of the court.

``Weakening the Geneva protections is not only unnecessary, but would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights, that they could issue their own legislative `reinterpretations,' " McCain said in a statement released Friday. ``This puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars."

McCain said there is nothing in the Senate bill that would require the administration to close its CIA detainee program. He said it protects CIA interrogators from unfair exposure to criminal and civil liability and keeps intact international obligations that protect the rights of US personnel.

``To do any less risks our reputation, our moral standing, and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country," McCain said.

Graham, likewise, remained insistent on the Senate approach, saying his legislation accomplishes the necessary goals of protecting CIA personnel from legal liability ``without destroying Geneva Convention protections."

``What is being billed as clarifying our treaty obligations will be seen as withdrawing from the treaty obligations," said a statement he issued. ``It will set precedent which could come back to haunt us."

Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, supports a House bill that takes the administration's position to move the process along, but he said he will attempt to amend the measure next week to look more like the McCain-Warner-Graham measure. He said the Senate bill would be less likely to face a Supreme Court challenge that it is unlawful and violating the nation's treaty obligations.

``I don't want to give any terrorist a free pass or get-out-of-jail-free card," Skelton said.

Meanwhile, the director of central intelligence told CIA employees Thursday that the agency believed it was operating lawfully in detaining and interrogating 96 suspected terrorists at locations from Thailand to Europe, until the Supreme Court this summer demolished that legal foundation.

``At the end of the day, the director -- any director -- of the CIA must be confident that what he has asked an agency officer to do under this program is lawful," Director Michael V. Hayden wrote employees .

The high court's ruling in June, in a case involving Salim Ahmed Hamdan, essentially said the Geneva Conventions on the rights of wartime prisoners should apply to the suspected terrorists in CIA custody.

That meant that for the first time since the interrogation program was born in 2002, the Justice Department could not give the CIA a written opinion on whether its techniques still were legal.

Spy agencies rely on such opinions to justify activities that get little, if any, public scrutiny.

To Bush, the CIA, and their allies, the law urgently needs to be changed to protect the interrogation program, which they consider one of the most important ways to deter attacks against the United States.

``The Hamdan decision in effect calls a time-out in the war on terror," said Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the Senate majority whip.

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