Congress, White House Clash over Prosecutions

In June, the Supreme Court struck down the military tribunals used by the Bush administration for trying suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo. Now, the president is calling on Congress to approve his proposal for a new system of military commissions. But authors of the Senate bill are clashing with the White House over whether to allow terrorism suspects access to the evidence against them.


In a speech yesterday, President Bush called on Congress to approve a system of military commissions to try the terrorist suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We put forward a bill that ensures these commissions are established in a way that protects our national security and ensures a full and fair trial for those accused. The procedures in the bill I am sending to Congress today reflect the reality that we are a nation at war and that it is essential for us to use all reliable evidence to bring these people to justice.

MONTAGNE: The Senate has been working on legislation similar to the president's since the Supreme Court struck down the administration's military tribunals in June. The Senate proposal is at odds with the White House over a key question, whether terrorist suspects should be able to see the evidence against them, even if it's classified.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

NAYLOR: Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee began their efforts to set up a system of military commissions after the High Court ruled the administration's first attempt at military tribunals violated U.S. and international law. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, himself a former military prosecutor, says he's been guided in his efforts by a simple test, whether he would want American service men and women to be treated under the rules Congress devises.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): And that's the test, because whatever we do will come back to one of two things. It will lead the way for the world, set a standard we can be proud of that will be a shining light for people to follow. Or we could set, by cutting legal corners, policies that will come back to haunt us.

NAYLOR: Under that standard, Graham has been urging that terrorist defendants be given many of the same rights criminal defendants receive in civilian and military courts, including the right to see the evidence against them. Senator John McCain of Arizona agrees, saying it's important that, in his words, we stand by 200 years of legal precedence concerning classified information, because the defendant should have the right to know what evidence is being used.

McCain and Graham would also bar the use of any testimony that's been coerced from defendants. But the Bush administration and its allies in Congress say that's going too far. Arizona's other Republican Senator, Jon Kyl, takes a hard-line view in support of the president.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Information from captured terrorists, we have found to be extraordinarily useful in not only finding out things about these terrorists so that we can find them and disrupt their activities but also to be able to prosecute cases against them. And it is our intention to be able to respond to the administration's request for the tools to not only fight the terrorists but also to prosecute them when the case warrants it.

NAYLOR: The Bush administration has another key ally in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Frist is planning on introducing the administration's legislation on the Senate floor.

The squabble among Republicans threatens to derail the military tribunal legislation, which GOP leaders want badly to approve this month before adjourning to campaign for the congressional midterm elections. It's part of a push of national security-themed legislation Republicans believe will play to voters' fears about terrorism. White House strategists see an opportunity to paint Democrats who resist the president as soft on terrorism, much as they did after Democrats objected to some aspects of the new Homeland Security Department in 2002, or to the war in Iraq in 2004.

While such appeals worked in those elections, Democrats believe they've blunted the Republican attacks this time by going on the offensive themselves. Yesterday, they unsuccessfully tried to force a vote of no confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, who heads his party's Senate campaign committee, also charged that the administration has blundered in combating terrorism.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Their bull in a China shop approach - ignore the Constitution, ignore the rule of law - has made us worse off than we would have been had they gone to Congress originally. The detainees are suing. Their status is in limbo. We're worse off than we were.

NAYLOR: The president hopes Congress will bar the detainees from suing under the Geneva Convention, but lawmakers have scant time to act and the clock is ticking.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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