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Senate Passes Bill on Detainee Interrogations
In the vote on the Specter-Leahy amendment, 43 Democrats and one independent were joined by four Republicans in the unsuccessful effort to include the provision. Fifty Republicans and one Democrat voted against the amendment, and one Republican did not cast a vote.
The four Republican senators voting for the measure were Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Specter. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to vote against it. Not voting was Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.).
Passage of the Senate bill gives Republicans a tool to use in campaigning ahead of the Nov. 7 midterm elections as they seek to promote their party's toughness against terrorism.
Some of the likely campaign rhetoric was foreshadowed yesterday when House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) charged after the mostly party-line House vote that Democrats who opposed the bill voted "in favor of more rights for terrorists" and that terrorists "would be coddled" if the Democrats had their way.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) denounced Hastert's "false and inflammatory rhetoric" and said Democrats opposed the bill because it could endanger U.S. troops, exposing them to similar treatment by enemy captors, and because it was likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court.
After a meeting with Republican senators at the U.S. Capitol this morning, Bush praised the House bill and urged the Senate "to get this legislation to my desk as soon as possible."
Bush called the bill "a very vital piece of legislation that will give us the tools necessary to protect the American people." He said it would "give us the capacity to be able to interrogate high-valued detainees, and at the same time, give us the capacity to try people . . . in our military tribunals."
"The American people need to know we're working together to win this war on terror," Bush told reporters after the meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other GOP leaders. "Our most important responsibility is to protect the American people from further attack. And we cannot be able to tell the American people we're doing our full job unless we have the tools necessary to do so."
In today's debate on the Senate floor, Democrats took aim at the overall bill and at the habeas corpus provision in particular.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) complained that the bill allows prosecutors in the special military tribunals to introduce into evidence statements elicited from detainees through what he called "cruel treatment," provided the statements were made before Dec. 30, 2005, the effective date of the Detainee Treatment Act introduced last year by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The aim is to protect CIA interrogators from being prosecuted over interrogation tactics used before that date.
The bill would bar military commissions from considering testimony obtained after Dec. 30 last year through interrogation techniques involving "cruel, unusual or inhumane treatment or punishment."
The provision allowing such testimony obtained before Dec. 30 is "unconscionable," Levin said on the Senate floor. "It is unheard of. It is untenable."
Leahy said the bill's provision eliminating habeas corpus protection would apply to 12 million legal immigrants living in the United States and a similar number of illegal immigrants if any of them were picked up on suspicion of supporting terrorism, for example by donating money to a charity that then gave funds to a prohibited group.
"We are about to put the darkest blot possible on the nation's conscience," Leahy said. "This is so wrong. . . . It is unconstitutional. It is un-American."
The provision "makes a mockery of the Bush-Cheney lofty rhetoric about exporting freedom across the globe," Leahy said. "What hypocrisy!"
A supporter of the bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said the United States has long given special protection to prisoners of war, "but unlawful combatants have never been given full protections of the Geneva Conventions."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) complained that "many myths" have arisen regarding the military commission legislation. He said the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 not only provides for review by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal of a prisoner's designation as an unlawful enemy combatant, but allows the right to challenge the tribunal's ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "Those who claim we're stripping habeas corpus rights are flying in the face of facts laid out in the Detainee Treatment Act," he said.
Sen. Smith, the Oregon Republican, said that while he supports the overall bill, he opposes the habeas corpus provision.
"The permanent detention of foreigners damages our moral integrity," he said. "The power to detain people without showing cause is a tool of despotism. Stripping courts of hearing habeas claims is a frontal attack on our judicial system."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a reserve Air Force judge, said he was untroubled by denying habeas corpus rights to "non-citizen enemy combatant terrorists" held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"I don't believe federal judges should be making military decisions in a time of war," he said. "The military of our country is better qualified to determine who is a an enemy combatant than a federal judge."
Specter said hearings before his Judiciary Committee showed that the military Combatant Status Review Tribunals do not have an adequate way of determining whether suspects are enemy combatants.
He charged that by striking habeas corpus rights for terrorism suspects, the bill "would take our civilized society back some 900 years" to a time before the Magna Carta was adopted. He said this was "unthinkable."
"What this entire controversy boils down to is whether Congress is going to legislate to deny a constitutional right which is explicit in the document of the Constitution itself and which has been applied to aliens by the Supreme Court of the United States," Specter said. If the bill passes without habeas corpus protections, it will be struck down by the high court, and "we'll be on this floor again rewriting the law," Specter predicted.