President Looks to Congress for Help with Guantanamo Rules

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Steve Inskeep talks to Cokie Roberts about last week's Supreme Court ruling on the detainees the U.S. is holding at Guantanamo Bay. They also discuss the Bush administration's attack on The New York Times.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The next decision about detainees and the war on terror may belong to Congress. Last week, the Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Bush and his policy for putting detainees on trial at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Court ruled that the president overstepped his authority in ordering military tribunals for some of the detainees. We're going to go now to NPR's Cokie Roberts for some analysis.

Cokie, welcome back.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Thank you, Steve. Good to be back.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you are. We missed you.

The Supreme Court seemed to throw the ball into Congress' hands now. How are lawmakers likely to respond?

ROBERTS: Well, not surprisingly, both politically, but also in terms of substance. Some, like former prisoner of war John McCain, says that what we should do is apply the Uniform Code of Military Justice and have Congress do that. Now, the administration has been loath to do that, saying it gives too many rights to the detainees. Others, like McCain's ally, usually, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, is worried about the Court invoking the Geneva Conventions, saying it goes too far in protecting groups like al Qaida which never signed on to the Geneva Conventions. And Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell expressed worries about how the Geneva Conventions would affect our military. Listen to Senator McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): This means that American servicemen potentially could be accused of war crimes. I think Congress is going to want to deal with that as well when it enacts these military commissions, and I think we need to do it soon.

ROBERTS: Now, McConnell was speaking on NBC's Meet the Press. Some Republicans think the best course is just to legalize the current detention rules with legislation and then just let the Democrats decide whether to go along or not. The Republicans see a great political opportunity once again here to paint the Democrats as soft on terrorism and national security. And, Steve, that does remain the Democrats' greatest vulnerability. In a recent ABC poll where the Democrats had briefly shown a lead over Republicans on the question of which party do you trust more to handle national security, now the Democrats have a seven-point detriment on that question. The Republicans lead them by seven points on the question of national security. So it's always a dicey issue for Democrats.

INSKEEP: Is there a downside for Republicans, though?

ROBERTS: Well, defending a still very unpopular president is a downside, and the Democrats are trying to make this election into a referendum on George Bush. They've got ads out morphing candidates into - Republican candidates into President Bush. And so I think that that's what you're going to hear is talking about the president trying to take all power to himself and not share it with Congress or the courts.

New York Democrat Chuck Schumer yesterday called on the attorney general to review all of the president's, quote, “arrogations of power.” Now, that's not likely to happen and Democrats know this is very dangerous territory. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, talking on ABC yesterday, says Republicans should, quote, “rue the day if they politicize this,” but that's the kind of rhetoric you hear when Democrats are worried about somebody politicizing this because they know it's not likely to work for them.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the political implications of another story here. The administration is unhappy, it says, with The New York Times for publishing details of a program to track terror financing.

ROBERTS: And that's politics as well. You know, beating up on the press is a time-honored tradition in this country, and beating up on The New York Times particularly works in getting the conservative base activated in this election year. But the Times is clearly feeling the heat. Bill Keller, the editor of the paper, was up on the talk shows yesterday, and here's what he had…

Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, The New York Times): You know, the government likes to have it both ways on these kinds of programs. They confide in us when they want to advertise the programs that are successful, and then they rebuke us if we write about something that they would prefer we didn't write about.

ROBERTS: That was on Face the Nation. But he is clearly - the Republicans clearly think they've got something going here.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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