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Senators Defy Bush On Terror Measure

Joining McCain, Warner and Graham in voting for their bill yesterday were Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and all of the committee's Democrats.

The dispute has fractured the GOP establishment. Powell and numerous retired military officers wrote letters supporting McCain's position, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials weighed in on Bush's behalf. The president made a rare visit to Capitol Hill yesterday to rally House Republicans and thank the House Armed Services Committee for overwhelmingly approving legislation that mirrored his position.

"The most important job of government is to protect the homeland, and yesterday they advanced an important piece of legislation to do just that," Bush told reporters. "I'll continue to work with members of the Congress to get good legislation so we can do our duty."

White House officials released a letter from senior Pentagon uniformed lawyers, who said they "do not object" to two key sections of the administration-backed bill that would reinterpret U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions and protect U.S. intelligence agents from war crimes prosecutions. They then summoned senators from the Armed Services and intelligence committees to an afternoon meeting with Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Seven attended, sources said.

The Pentagon letter immediately generated controversy. Senior judge advocates general had publicly questioned many aspects of the administration's position, especially any reinterpreting of the Geneva Conventions. The White House and GOP lawmakers seized on what appeared to be a change of heart to say that they now have military lawyers on their side.

But the letter was signed only after an extraordinary round of negotiations Wednesday between the judge advocates and William J. Haynes II, the Defense Department's general counsel, according to Republican opponents of Bush's proposal. The military lawyers refused to sign a letter of endorsement. But after hours of cajoling, they assented to write that they "do not object," according to three Senate GOP sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were divulging private negotiations.

Graham, a former Air Force judge advocate general, promised to summon the lawyers to a committee hearing and to ask for an explanation of the circumstances surrounding the letter.

One of the military lawyers, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., reiterated yesterday that he still has reservations about the administration's proposal, just not in the areas discussed in the letter. He said he was not forced to sign.

"I made my several personal objections to the administration's proposal clear in my [House] testimony," Dunlap said. "This matter was not among them."

White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters yesterday that Bush "will not accept something that prevents the [CIA detention] program from going forward." At a feisty briefing, Snow said critics have misconstrued the administration's intent, which he said is to define the Geneva Conventions' ban on cruel and inhumane treatment, not to undermine it.

"Somehow I think there's this construct in people's minds that we want to restore the rack and start getting people screaming, having their bones crunching," Snow said. "And that's not at all what this is about."

He said Powell did not discuss the issue with the White House before releasing his letter.

"They don't understand what we're trying to do here," he said of Powell and retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who wrote a similar letter. Asked if Powell is "confused," Snow said, "Yes."

McCain, who was tortured as a Vietnam War prisoner, dismissed similar comments in the committee session, saying Powell knew exactly what he was doing.

Staff writers Peter Baker, Josh White and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.

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