Off Message

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, September 15, 2006; 11:10 AM

A handful of Republican senators are messing up both President Bush's attempt to legalize conduct that could well be described as torture -- and his party's attempts to mock Democrats for caring about such things.

Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "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. . . .

"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.'"

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "The White House had said [the senators'] legislation would leave the United States no option but to shut down a C.I.A. program to interrogate high-level terrorism suspects."

But McCain disagrees: "'What [CIA Director General Michael] Hayden wants us to do is immunize him not from liability but from criticism,' Mr. McCain said after the vote, 'because if one of his techniques is made public and he gets criticized, then he can say, "Well, Congress told me to do it." He's trying to protect his reputation at the risk of America's reputation.'"

Zernike notes: "The bill may face amendment in any case. Some Democrats object to a provision that would block detainees from challenging their detention in court. More than two dozen retired federal judges sent a letter to Congress arguing that such a provision would lead to unlawful permanent detention, and defy Supreme Court precedent."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and Congressional Republicans spent the last 10 days laying the foundation for a titanic pre-election struggle over national security, and now they have one. But the fight playing out this week on Capitol Hill is not what they had in mind.

"Instead of drawing contrasts with Democrats, the president's call for creating military tribunals to try terror suspects -- a key substantive and political component of his fall agenda -- has erupted into a remarkably intense clash pitting some of the best-known warriors in the Republican Party against Mr. Bush and the Congressional leadership."

Bush's position took a blow with a letter released yesterday from his former secretary of State, Colin Powell. Powell wrote: "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

Bush Speaks

The White House announced this morning that Bush would hold a press conference at 11:15 a.m. ET, after this column's deadline.

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