White House, Senators Near Pact on Interrogation Rules

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 22, 2006

The White House and dissident Senate Republicans reached a tentative accord yesterday on legislation that President Bush said would provide for continued tough interrogations of terrorism suspects by the CIA at secret detention sites.

The accord, which includes a plan for future military trials of alleged terrorists, also spells out rules for the use of classified evidence as well as information obtained through coercion of some detainees.

While the deal is subject to further discussion with House Republican leaders, it resolved the most contentious issues in the Bush administration's high-profile drive to gain congressional backing for its detainee policies before Congress adjourns next week. It also could help settle an intraparty fracas that worried GOP leaders in the run-up to the November elections.

Both sides declared that they had achieved their aims. Bush hailed the accord in a brief televised appearance from Orlando. He said the deal preserved "the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets." CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told the agency in a statement that "if this language becomes law, the Congress will have given us the clarity and the support that we need to move forward with a detention and interrogation program."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner during the Vietnam War who led the Senate rebellion against the administration's proposals, said, "The agreement that we've entered into gives the president the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice." But he added: "There is no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved."

On the key issue of detainee treatment that had caused the impasse between the White House and the dissident Republicans, the two sides agreed on a list of specified crimes that could provoke prosecution of CIA interrogators and others. They also agreed that past violations of the Geneva Conventions, an international treaty barring degrading and humiliating treatment of detainees, would not result in criminal or civil legal action.

The White House, for its part, yielded in its demand to adopt, with congressional approval, a restricted definition of its obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. That article requires humane treatment of detainees and bars "violence to life and person," such as death and mutilation, as well as cruel treatment and "outrages upon personal dignity."

The compromise language gives the president a dominant -- but not exclusive -- role in deciding which interrogation methods are permitted by that provision of the treaty. It also prohibits detainees from using the Geneva Conventions to challenge their imprisonment or seek civil damages for mistreatment, as the administration sought.

Subsidiary legal disputes will probably be hammered out in coming days, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said at a crowded news conference outside his office.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a key McCain ally, said that "we struck a great balance" by agreeing that in future military trials, known as "commissions," classified materials must be provided to defendants in summary or redacted form. The administration had sought the right to use such evidence without disclosing it to defendants in any form, but Graham said the legislation would instead let defendants "confront the evidence."

The administration envisions using the new rules in military trials that may involve some of the 14 key terrorism suspects whom Bush this month ordered transferred from secret CIA prisons to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yesterday's final marathon talks occurred in Vice President Cheney's little-known office on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. McCain, Graham and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), plus Hadley and Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, met almost continuously from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., the sources said, and then moved to Frist's office around 3 p.m. to announce their breakthrough.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company