WASHINGTON — The White House and rebellious Senate Republicans announced agreement Thursday on rules for the interrogation and trial of suspects in the war on terror. President Bush urged Congress to put it into law before adjourning for the midterm elections.
“I’m pleased to say that this agreement preserves the single most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks,” the president said, shortly after administration officials and key lawmakers announced agreement following a week of high-profile intraparty disagreement.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of three GOP lawmakers who told Bush he couldn’t have the legislation the way he initially asked for it, said, “The agreement that we’ve entered into gives the president the tools he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice.”
“There’s no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved,” McCain said, referring to international agreements that cover the treatment of prisoners in wartime.
Details of the agreement were sketchy.
Torture a key issue
The central sticking point had involved a demand from McCain, Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for a provision making it clear that torture of suspects would be barred.
One official said that under the agreement, the administration agreed to drop language that would have stated an existing ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment was enough to meet Geneva Convention obligations.
Convention standards are much broader and include a prohibition on “outrages” against “personal dignity.”
In turn, this official said, negotiators agreed to clarify what acts constitute a war crime. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he had not been authorized to discuss the details.
The agreement did not extend to a related issue — whether suspects and their lawyers would be permitted to see any classified evidence in the cases against them.
Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wouldn’t consider the agreement sealed until Bush signed on.
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That happened within an hour, when the president stepped before microphones in Orlando, Fla., where he was campaigning for Republican candidates in the fall.
The agreement “clears the way to do what the American people expect us to do — to capture terrorists, to detain terrorists, to question terrorists and then to try them,” he said.
The accord was sealed in a 90-minute session in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had earlier in the day told Warner, McCain and Graham it was time to close the deal. The four lawmakers were joined by Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, as well as other administration officials, for the final session.
Top priority for Bush
If it survives scrutiny, the accord would fulfill a Republican political and legislative imperative — pre-election party unity on an issue related to the war on terror, and possible enactment of one of Bush’s top remaining priorities of the year.
The evident compromise came less than a week after Bush emphatically warned lawmakers at a news conference he would shut down the interrogation of terror suspects unless legislation was sent to his desk. “Time’s running out,” he said.
The White House shifted its tone from combative to compromising within 48 hours, though, and officials began talking of a need for an agreement that all sides would be comfortable with.
Whatever the outcome, the controversy has handed critics of the president’s conduct of the war on terror election-year ammunition.
Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, dismayed the administration when he sided with Warner, McCain and Graham. He said Bush’s plan, which would have formally changed the U.S. view of the Geneva Conventions on rules of warfare, would cause the world “to doubt the moral basis” of the fight against terror and “put our own troops at risk.”
The handling of suspects is one of two administration priorities relating to the war on terror.
Wiretapping also an issue
The other involves the president’s request for legislation to explicitly allow wiretapping without a court warrant on international calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists in the United States and abroad. One official said Republicans had narrowed their differences with the White House over that issue, as well, and hoped for an agreement soon.
Republican leaders have said they intend to adjourn Congress by the end of the month to give lawmakers time to campaign for re-election.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that Bush’s plan for trying terrorism suspects before military tribunals violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law.
The court, in a 5-3 ruling, found that Congress had not given Bush the authority to create the special type of military trial and that the president did not provide a valid reason for the new system. The justices also said the proposed trials did not provide for minimum legal protections under international law.
About 450 terrorism suspects, most of them captured in Afghanistan and none of them in the U.S., are being held by military authorities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ten have been charged with crimes.
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