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GOP Leaders Back Bush on Wiretapping, Tribunals

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Congress's Republican leadership yesterday threw its weight behind two of President Bush's most controversial national security programs, warrantless wiretapping and extrajudicial military tribunals.

But the party leaders are having trouble getting all their members on board, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And by backing the president's legislative demands, the leadership risks being labeled by Democrats as a rubber stamp for an unpopular president.

With prodding from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 8 along party lines to approve a bill negotiated with the White House to allow -- but not require -- Bush to submit the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program to a secret court for constitutional review.

That bill, which could come before the Senate next week, is considered by many to be a ratification of the administration's current surveillance program, which monitors the overseas phone calls and e-mails of some Americans when one party is suspected of links to terrorism. The program has been attacked by Democrats and civil liberties advocates as an excessive encroachment on Americans' privacy.

"The committee took the important step of acknowledging the president's constitutional authority to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), an ardent Bush ally.

At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee voted 52 to 8 to ratify the White House's version of legislation creating military commissions for trying terrorism suspects. The measure would give Bush the authority he seeks to withhold classified evidence from defendants, admit testimony that defendants might maintain was coerced, and protect U.S. intelligence agents from legal action over their interrogation methods. House Republican leaders plan to bring the tribunal bill to a vote next week.

Committee action and the scheduling of floor time represented tangible progress for the administration and turned what had been essentially a heated policy debate into a legislative showdown. But if GOP leaders intended to use the bills to distinguish Republicans from Democrats on the conduct of the fight against terrorism, they had their share of problems.

Frist and other GOP leaders remain at odds with many of their rank-and-file members over their military commission bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) are holding firm against the White House and Frist in their support of an alternative tribunal bill that would limit the use of classified evidence and coerced testimony in terrorism prosecutions while maintaining broader protections for detainees against cruel and inhumane treatment. They said they will press ahead with their bill, despite the political sensitivity of the controversy in a key election year.

"Every senator and congressman should understand this is not about November 2006. This is not about your reelection," Graham said. "This is about those who take risks to defend America."

Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, in an unusual conference call with reporters yesterday evening to express opposition to the dissident Senate bill, said the CIA had told him that, if that bill passes, the agency will not be able to continue its "high-value terrorist detention program."

The existence of that program, known unofficially as the CIA's secret prison system, was confirmed last week by Bush, but all its prisoners were transferred to military custody. Negroponte said that under the Senate's proposed rules, the program's effectiveness would be so curtailed that continuing it would not make sense.

McCain expressed bewilderment at an administration stand that he said would tamper with interpretations of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. That stand is firmly opposed by top military lawyers. "The overwhelming majority of retired military people are weighing in on this issue and saying, 'Don't amend Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions] because then you are allowing other nations' " to conclude that they, too, can change the conventions, McCain said.

McCain and his allies were unable to persuade White House negotiators to agree that an alleged enemy combatant could not be convicted on the basis of classified information that is not shared in some form with the defendant. "We're still gridlocked on that," McCain said. "They want to turn 200 years of criminal procedure on its head."

In the House, the Judiciary Committee was forced to scrap a planned drafting of a warrantless surveillance bill, in part because nearly half a dozen Republican conservatives were in open rebellion against GOP leaders' efforts to weaken controls on the eavesdropping program.

"There are enough Republicans with concerns," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was pushing bipartisan legislation that would all but scuttle the warrantless surveillance program. "Once you basically give the president this authority, it's very difficult to pull it back. That's very shortsighted just to point out the differences between Republicans and Democrats."

Such internal dissension did not sit well with an orchestrated push to elevate the profile of the national security debate ahead of the Nov. 7 midterm elections. GOP leaders seized on week-old comments by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that suggested that the capture of Osama bin Laden would not "make us safer." Republicans launched a blizzard of e-mailed statements condemning the comments, culminating in a news conference yesterday.

Democrats noted that Pelosi's comments mirrored sentiments expressed by Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and even Vice President Cheney last weekend, when he told Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press": "He's not the only source of the problem, obviously, Tim. If you killed him tomorrow, you'd still have a problem with al-Qaeda."

The second GOP track is to label military commissions "terrorist tribunals" and attack Democrats for opposing them. House Republican leadership aides acknowledged that the biggest roadblock to the president's military commissions is coming from Senate Republicans.

Democrats used the GOP's allegiance to the Bush security agenda to redouble efforts to tie vulnerable Republicans to the president.

"The role of Congress is to bring to bear its own independent judgment, to represent the American people and to forge policy, not to simply be a complacent rubber stamp for the president of the United States," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Staff writers Charles Babington and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.

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