Senators Defy Bush On Terror Measure
Friday, September 15, 2006
A Senate committee rebuffed the personal entreaties of President Bush yesterday, rejecting his proposed strategies for interrogating and trying enemy combatants and approving alternative legislation that he has strenuously opposed.
The bipartisan vote sets up a legislative showdown on an issue that GOP strategists had hoped would unite their party and serve as a cudgel against Democrats in the Nov. 7 elections. Instead, Bush and congressional Republican leaders are at loggerheads with a dissident group led by Sen. John McCain (R), who says the president's approach would jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops and intelligence operatives.
Despite heavy lobbying by Bush, who visited the Capitol yesterday, and Vice President Cheney, who was there Tuesday, McCain and his allies held fast. Even former secretary of state Colin L. Powell weighed in on McCain's side.
Moments after the Armed Services Committee voted 15 to 9 to endorse McCain's alternative bill, the Arizona senator lashed out at CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who had also lobbied lawmakers personally.
McCain told reporters that Hayden wants Congress to give the CIA a virtually free hand to treat detainees as it wishes so that he and his agents will be immunized against accusations of unlawful conduct. "He's trying to protect his reputation at the risk of America's reputation," McCain said. The senator noted that other nations would be more likely to abuse U.S. captives if Americans appeared to sanction such conduct.
A CIA spokesman said Hayden "wants to protect the people who work for him" and who take risks to "help keep all Americans safe."
The committee action puts McCain and his allies on a collision course with the administration, whose supporters hope to change the bill in the full Senate, and with the House, which is expected to approve the president's bill next week.
With virtually all Senate Democrats likely to back McCain, he appears to have enough Republican support -- for now, at least -- to fend off amendments on the Senate floor and to block passage of the House version if it emerges from a conference committee.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn in two weeks, and lawmakers said they will be hard pressed to resolve the matter before the elections.
The disagreement centers mainly on how to square the CIA's techniques with the Geneva Conventions, which say wartime detainees must be "treated humanely." The administration bill says the United States complies with the conventions as long as interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of captives.
McCain and his chief Republican allies on the Senate committee, Chairman John W. Warner (Va.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), say that this requirement is too narrow and that the United States should not try to limit its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, they want CIA officers to abide by the common understanding of the treaty's meaning, including a ban on "outrages upon personal dignity."
Bush's bill would also allow alleged enemy combatants to be convicted by military commissions relying on classified information not shared with the suspects. The McCain-backed measure would make the exclusion of classified information more difficult, and it states in general terms that defendants have the right to examine and respond to any evidence directly related to guilt or innocence.