Reconsidering the War on Terror

President Bush addresses a joint session of Congress. i i

President Bush outlined the war on terror in an address to a joint session of Congress, Sept. 20, 2001. White House Photo hide caption

itoggle caption White House Photo
President Bush addresses a joint session of Congress.

President Bush outlined the war on terror in an address to a joint session of Congress, Sept. 20, 2001.

White House Photo

A wrenching case of donor's remorse is wracking Capitol Hill these days. And no, it's not just about all those billions of borrowed greenbacks Congress gave to hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast, most of it to be administered by FEMA. It's bigger than that, and bigger still than the second thoughts Congress is having about all those billions spent on roads and bridges — whether in Iraq or in Alaska.

No, the giveaway many lawmakers seem lately to regret most (especially those seated on the Democratic side of the aisle) is the carte blanche they gave President Bush to fight a never-formally-declared war on terror.

Three days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed a resolution that authorized President Bush "to use all necessary and appropriate force" against all those he determined were involved in those attacks "in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States." It was, in effect, a warrant for the president to do whatever he deemed necessary to protect the nation — with no expiration date.

Four years later, with President Bush getting the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, there's a bout of serious second-guessing under way at the Capitol and it includes the war on terror. No lawmaker has yet tried to rescind the legislative carte blanche granted to Mr. Bush after the twin towers of the World Trade Center were obliterated. Instead, some are trying to override the president's policy choices, especially when it comes to the detention and interrogation of foreigners by American officials.

Still, it's not clear Congress is really going to rein in a president who does not like being told what to do, not even by members of his own party. The test case will likely be its handling of a provision banning the torture of detainees.

Arizona Sen. John McCain persuaded all but nine of his fellow Republicans to attach the amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill last month, despite a veto threat from the White House. But the House has never even considered such a measure, making the McCain amendment a prime candidate to be stripped out of the defense spending bill when it's merged in conference with the House's version.

The conferees would have an excuse for this. They could say that McCain's amendment is also attached to a separate defense authorization bill, without mentioning that the latter bill stands far less chance of enactment.

Whatever its ultimate fate, McCain's amendment has already proved a political embarrassment to the Bush White House. It's shown that Vice President Cheney's clout in a Republican-run Senate is not what it used to be. Four days after, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his former chief of staff was indicted for allegedly lying to a grand jury, Cheney went to the Capitol to lobby a roomful of lunching GOP senators. But his request that they exempt the CIA from the strictures of McCain's amendment was quickly rebutted by McCain in the closed-door session. If anything, the Senate now appears even more determined to keep the no-torture provision in the defense spending bill.

The president himself has also felt the sting of McCain's defiance. When a reporter asked him during a recent stop in Panama about the administration's opposition to McCain's amendment, Mr. Bush felt compelled to declare "we do not torture." White House spokesman Scott McClellan was left to answer the inevitable follow-up question: If "we do not torture," why oppose McCain's amendment? Instead of answering the question, McClellan accused the reporter who asked it of "showboating for the cameras."

The defense spending bill now bearing McCain's amendment would normally be one of the first appropriation bills finished by Congress, especially with the nation at war. But with the new fiscal year already more than a month old, it's not done. That's because the House and Senate have passed their own versions of that bill, and House GOP leaders have not yet named their representatives (known as conferees) to reconcile the differences. The longer that bill lingers unfinished in Congress, the more likely it becomes that the McCain amendment will survive and pose a dilemma for Mr. Bush. The president will either have to swallow the torture ban or veto the whole spending bill. That would mean exercising his veto power for the very first time, and doing it against a bill funding the armed forces he commands.

There's another late development that may boost the odds for the anti-torture amendment's survival. That's the story in The Washington Post this month revealing that the CIA is running a chain of clandestine prisons where suspected terrorists are held.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) responded to the report by demanding a joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee probe into how that information leaked. But there's little enthusiasm among senators for getting into such a full-blown investigation — especially because it may point to the Post's source being one of those GOP senators who heard about the secret jails from the vice president as he made his luncheon pitch for exempting the CIA from the anti-torture measure.

Many GOP senators probably never expected McCain's amendment to go as far as President Bush's desk when they voted for it in early October. But since then, the ban on torture has been endorsed by a tidal wave of editorials across the nation. And the House GOP leadership, once counted on to junk the amendment in conference, is reeling from the indictment of its former majority leader, Tom DeLay. In the current climate, many House Republicans also appear inclined to endorse the anti-torture measure — especially one sponsored by a senator who was himself the victim of five years of imprisonment and torture in Vietnam.

So the McCain amendment may have taken on a life of its own. If so, watch for any number of parliamentary maneuvers by GOP leaders to shoot it down. The stakes could scarcely be higher, testing the open-ended autonomy Congress granted the president to fight the kind of war on terror he saw fit. McCain's amendment would take back at least some of the authority Congress relinquished in those panicky days following the Sept. 11 attacks.

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