White House Offers New Proposal on Interrogations
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
White House officials sent Congress a revised proposal last night on rules governing the interrogation of detainees at secret CIA prisons, bending to the opposition of a growing group of Republicans who have balked at President Bush's proposal on military trials for suspected terrorists.
Senate aides and White House officials did not divulge the changes to the initial proposal, but they made it clear that negotiations were restarting after days of heated charges and countercharges. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a central figure in the dispute, said there is now a "50-50 chance" of a deal being struck by week's end.
At issue is legislation authorizing the creation of "military commissions" that would try terrorist suspects. But the central dispute is whether language should be included to "clarify" the responsibilities that intelligence operatives have under the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of detainees in secret prisons.
A group of dissident Republicans, led by Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner (Va.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Graham, say that would be tantamount to abrogating the Geneva Conventions and would invite other countries to reinterpret the treaty as they wish.
"We appear to be moving towards a possible resolution," said a senior Bush aide, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss negotiations. Another official said both sides decided to cool down the debate after days of pitched rhetoric when they concluded they were getting nowhere.
Since the dispute burst into the open Wednesday, five other Republican senators -- Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) -- have indicated they will side with the dissidents, and the numbers were threatening to grow.
"Obviously, the debate has raised a couple decibel levels," the second White House official said. "We could block whatever they want, and they could block whatever we want. Nobody wants that kind of impasse." Congressional leaders had hoped that the commissions bill would be the centerpiece of a legislative month dedicated to national security issues.
After yesterday's talks, the official said, "there was a general tone of cautious optimism."
The dissidents' hand has only grown stronger. House Republican leaders decided yesterday to drop a vote planned for this week on Bush's bill on military trials, agreeing instead to refer it to the Judiciary Committee for further consideration. White House and GOP leaders had hoped an overwhelming vote in the House this week would increase the pressure on McCain, Graham and Warner to relent.
More troubling to the White House and GOP leaders, Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, indicated he may ask to examine portions of the bill pertaining to international treaties, leadership aides acknowledged.
GOP leaders are concerned that would open a second front on the debate over the Geneva Conventions. Hyde would also like to examine a section of the bill suspending detainees' right of habeas corpus, a provision that civil libertarians strongly criticize but that so far has not been controversial in Congress.
A White House official expressed confidence that House GOP leaders will bring to a vote a bill of the president's liking. Still, the delay in the House marked a fresh setback for Bush, who had demanded that Congress send him a bill this month authorizing the creation of the commissions.
Beyond the dispute over the Geneva Conventions, the White House and the dissidents are clashing on how and whether classified information should be divulged to commission defendants, and whether evidence obtained through coercive interrogations should be admissible at trials.
The White House would like more latitude to withhold classified information, but the dissidents say it is a fundamental rule of jurisprudence that defendants be able to confront the evidence being used against them. The dissidents are also concerned that the use of coerced evidence could open convictions to appeal.
White House and Senate officials indicated that yesterday's counterproposal from the Bush administration deals primarily with the Geneva Conventions issue. Once agreement can be reached on that, they said, the other matters should be resolved quickly.
Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, said the Arizona senator is hoping for assurances from the White House that CIA interrogators would abide by the standards of treatment for detainees codified last year after a fight with the White House over interrogation at military prisons. But such assurances would not be enough unless Bush agrees to drop any new definitions of treatment under the Geneva Conventions.
A third White House official said the administration would tone down its public discussion of the matter as long as talks proceeded. "As long as there's a sense that there's a deal to be had and everyone's trying to get there, you won't see much public chatter out there," the official said.