By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
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.