WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday defended the Bush administration's strategy for interrogating terror suspects, calling it legal and critical to "continue gathering information about our enemies."
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In a speech, Gonzales said CIA interrogators lack guidance on how to comply with the international Geneva Conventions, saying the provisions banning "humiliating and degrading treatment" and "outrages upon personal dignity" are too vague.
"Such phrases standing alone mean different things to Americans," he said at a conference on citizenship. "Think of the differences in interpretation that will exist between differing legal systems and cultures of the nations of the world."
"Seeking this clarity is important to our efforts to continue gathering information about our enemies," Gonzales said. "In all that we do in the war on terror, we seek to promote the rule of law and protect freedom."
Senate vote expected this week
Trying to end a protest by dissident Senate Republicans, the White House says it's confident it can reach a compromise on proposed rules for interrogating terror suspects.
But neither side is saying how an agreement can be achieved on whether to allow highly controversial methods by the CIA, such as electric shock, forced nakedness and waterboarding, in which a subject is made to think he is drowning. The Bush administration says those techniques have foiled terror plots. Opponents say they verge on torture.
The full Senate was expected to take up the issue as early as this week.
"The reason we have this program is these kind of hard-core terrorists who are most likely to have information to allow us to protect America are trained in counterinterrogation techniques," Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, said Sunday.
"It was only when they went into this CIA program we were able to get information," he said. "This is not torture. This is not a program out of control. This is a program that is conducted pursuant to law."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the Republicans not satisfied with the White House proposal, said he was committed to working out a deal but insisted that the United States must hold the moral high ground.
"They are people that when they are in our custody, they deserve nothing except the fundamental rights that all prisoners have under the Geneva Conventions," said McCain, a former prisoner of war. "We should not do things which would be condemned by everyone in the world."
First lady Laura Bush, in New York for an international literacy conference, said Monday she was confident that her husband and congressional Republicans would "come to some consensus" on the legislation. Bush was not upset, she said, when McCain and two other Senate Republicans broke with the administration last week over the detainee interrogation bill.
"He knows these men very well, obviously," Mrs. Bush said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "He knows what their issues are... Obviously he thinks it's very important to be able to interrogate in a way that's not demeaning."
The Supreme Court in June ruled the Geneva Conventions on the rights of wartime detainees should apply to suspected terrorists in CIA custody. The decision froze the interrogations and led the Bush administration to turn over the last 14 prisoners in CIA custody to military officials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At issue is Common Article 3 of the conventions, which ban in part inhuman treatment of captives as well as "outrages upon personal dignity."
Legal experts say that under international law, the provision would likely bar the CIA's more aggressive tactics. Bush contends it is too vague. He wants a narrower interpretation that would permit the program to continue and shield CIA interrogators from lawsuits.
McCain, as well as Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say that would redefine the broader legal understanding of the conventions in the international community.
Their Senate proposal is silent as to what types of CIA tactics might be permissible under the broader conception of Article 3.
Lack of guidance limiting progress
On Sunday, Bush's national intelligence director, John Negroponte, said that after the Supreme Court ruling, the aggressive interrogation program has had "precious little activity of that kind for a number of months now" because of questions about its legality.
Hadley declined to say what specific techniques, such as waterboarding or prolonged sleep deprivation, would likely be considered illegal if Congress doesn't pass Bush's proposal.
But he said the CIA program would suffer and be shut down if interrogators do not have guidance. He said the White House is working on a compromise that "achieves Senator McCain's requirement that we don't amend or change" the Geneva Conventions.
Hadley appeared on ABC's "This Week," CBS' "Face the Nation" and CNN's "Late Edition." Negroponte was on "Fox News Sunday," McCain on ABC and Graham on CBS.
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