WASHINGTON — Faced with a revolt by some fellow Republicans over treatment of foreign terrorism suspects, President Bush on Friday vigorously defended his strategy at a press conference.
“The enemy wants to attack us again,” he said in urging Congress to pass controversial legislation to detain, interrogate and try suspects in the war against terrorism.
“Time is running out,” Bush said from the White House Rose Garden. “Congress needs to act wisely and promptly.”
Senate GOP leaders will call for a vote on the proposal as early as next week. Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell said no decision had been made on when to vote on the measure, which critics say does not go far enough to protect suspects’ rights. He added that he hoped a floor vote would settle the issue.
Bush denied that the United States might lose the high ground in the eyes of world opinion, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested on Thursday.
“It’s unacceptable to think there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective,” said Bush, growing animated as he spoke.
“If not for this (anti-terror) program, our intelligence community believes al-Qaida and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland,” he said.
“Unfortunately the recent Supreme Court decision put the future of this program in question. ... We need this legislation to save it.”
The high court earlier this year struck down Bush’s current arrangement for trying detainees held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Battle on the Hill
Bush’s comments came a day after Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee broke with the administration and approved a rival bill for detention and trial of foreign terrorism suspects. Bush claims the measure would compromise the war on terrorism.
He is urging the Senate to pass a bill more like a House-passed one that would allow his administration to continue holding and trying terror suspects before military tribunals.
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The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 15-9 on Thursday to endorse an alternative bill by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that would protect the rights of foreign terrorism suspects.
McCain, Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham made up the core of the rebellion against Bush. Eleven Democrats on the Armed Services Committee joined them as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins in voting in favor of the alternative legislation.
The vote by the moderate Collins underscored that there might be broad enough GOP support to successfully take on Bush on the floor of the Republican-run Senate.
Powell, Bush's previous secretary of state, said in a letter to McCain that Bush’s proposal to redefine the Geneva Conventions would encourage the world to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism” and “put our own troops at risk.”
McConnell, R-Ky., is expected to champion Bush’s proposal on the floor. “We know (the program) has worked. We know it has saved lives. And we know the director of the CIA said that under the alternative bill, that program will have to be shut down.”
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he supports the Senate approach championed by McCain and others because it would be less likely to be challenged by the Supreme Court as unlawful and violating the nation’s treaty obligations. He voted this week in favor of a committee bill that supports the administration’s position to “move the process along,” but said he will attempt to amend the measure when the bill reaches the floor next week.
“I don’t want to give any terrorist a free pass or get-out-of-jail-free card,” Skelton said.
Shortly after Bush went to Capitol Hill on Thursday, the Senate committee approved its own bill, which it said would meet demands made by the Supreme Court in striking down Bush’s original plan.
CIA at center of debate
The vote set up a legislative showdown during an election year in which Republicans hope to protect control of both houses of Congress by appearing strong on fighting terrorism.
The main debate is over White House efforts to write definitions of what would be inhumane treatment under the Geneva Conventions, giving CIA interrogators guidelines on what interrogation methods may be used for a program it credits for breaking up eight terrorism plots.
Bush said the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 is vague and must be clarified to protect CIA interrogators from prosecution by other countries. Article 3 requires detainees be "treated humanely" and bars "outrages upon personal dignity."
Bush wants Congress to pass legislation interpreting the conventions as barring "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment, rather than the "personal dignity" phrases which, he argues, are so vague that they leave interrogators open to prosecution for a wide variety of techniques.
The Washington Post wrote in an editorial on Friday that Bush was basically lobbying for torture and that the CIA wants permission to interrogate detainees “with abusive practices that in the past have included induced hypothermia and ‘waterboarding,’ or simulated drowning.”
Critics of Bush’s proposal argue that reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions would be seen as weakening the treaty and be an invitation to other countries, including Iran and Syria, to attempt to change language they find objectionable.
"What is being billed as 'clarifying' our treaty obligations will be seen as 'withdrawing' from the treaty obligations," Graham said. "It will set precedent which could come back to haunt us."
How legislation differs
The Senate committee bill would require that defendants have access to classified evidence used against them, limit the use of hearsay evidence and restrict the use of evidence obtained by coercion.
The president’s measure would allow classified evidence to be withheld from defendants in terror trials, using coerced testimony and protecting CIA and other U.S. interrogators against prosecution for using methods that may violate the Geneva Conventions.
Friday's news conference is the president's first since Aug. 21, when he said the Iraq war was “straining the psyche of our country” but that leaving now would be a disaster.
Bush has made the struggle against terrorism and the war in Iraq the top issues in the November elections, hoping to persuade voters that Republicans are better than Democrats at protecting the country.
Bush’s voice rose and he chopped the air with his right hand several times as he spoke on Iraq. He denied anew that the surge in sectarian violence meant a civil war.
On other subjects, Bush:
- All but acknowledged one of his top domestic priorities — immigration law overhaul — was essentially dead for now amid disputes on Capitol Hill. When will there be action, he was asked. “I don’t know the timetable. ... My answer is as soon as possible is what I’d like to see done.”
- Said he will signal at the United Nations next week firm U.S. opposition to delaying nuclear negotiations with Iran. He said he won’t meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who also will be at the United Nations next week.
- Cited a “level of frustration” with the United Nations, both on dealing with the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and with spending its money wisely.
- Responded that “I wouldn’t exactly put it that way” when asked if he agreed with comments by House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that Democrats “are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.” But, he said, “there’s a difference in attitude” between Republicans and Democrats.
The Associated Press, Reuters and The Washington Post contributed to this report.