Four Republican senators are at odds with the White House over proposed legislation on terrorism suspects. The White House does not like a version of the bill passed by the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee. The Bush administration's goal of signing a measure into law before mid-term elections now seems in doubt.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Four leading Republican senators yesterday clashed with the White House over proposed legislation on how terror suspects should be treated. The GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee passed a version of the bill that the White House says is unacceptable.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports that the Bush administration's goal of passing the measure it wants before mid-term elections is in doubt.
DON GONYEA: When President Bush announced last week that al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other detainees who had been held in secret CIA prisons were being transferred to Guantanamo, Mr. Bush called on Congress to quickly pass legislation he sent to the Hill laying the legal foundation for tribunals to bring them to justice. The president presented it as a clear choice for lawmakers. But as yesterday's developments played out, it was evident that this would not be resolved quickly.
Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): It is not unusual for people to work hard through these things. And I don't think either side wants to be pressed into a corner.
GONYEA: But what makes this very unusual is that the big obstacle for the president in the Senate comes from three top Republicans: John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They have expressed concerns that the president's plan denies detainees some basic rights. They argued that that could call into question the legality of any detainee trials that are held. They also say it could affect the treatment of U.S. military personnel if they are captured by the enemy.
The Bush administration and these Republicans are also in disagreement over a section of the Geneva Conventions known as Common Article 3. The White House says it speaks of cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners but doesn't spell out what that means. Tony Snow tried to downplay the conflict yesterday.
Mr. SNOW: This is not a crisis. This is, in fact, the very important business of trying to figure out how to proceed, how to write laws.
GONYEA: Also unusual yesterday: a pair of letters to Senators arguing different points of view, one by current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and one by her predecessor, Colin Powell, who wrote to Senator McCain. Powell wrote, quote, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts."
Rice's letter to Senator Warner countered that the legislation the president wants would strengthen U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions because it would, quote, "add meaningful definition and clarification to vague terms."
There was one other letter of note, this one released by the White House. It was from senior military lawyers saying they do not object to what the president wants regarding some changes to Common Article 3. Earlier, in testimony before Congress, these military lawyers had expressed strong concerns, and yesterday's letter still stopped short of a full endorsement of the White House position.
Yesterday in the Oval Office, the president was asked about the debate.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: If there's any doubt in our professionals' mind that they can conduct their operations in a legal way with support of the Congress, the program won't go forward and the American people will be endangered.
GONYEA: But that's clearly a point on which the president is finding strong disagreement, even from within his own party.
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, and her predecessor, Colin Powell, are at odds over detainee legislation.
Following are letters by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on proposed legislation defining acceptable interrogation and prosecution procedures for terrorism suspects held outside of the regular U.S. legal system. The letters were released Thursday.
Dear Senator McCain:
I just returned to town and learned about the debate taking place in Congress to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. I do not support such a step and believe it would be inconsistent with the McCain amendment on torture which I supported last year.
I have read the powerful and eloquent letter sent to you by one (of) my distinguished predecessors as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jack Vessey. I fully endorse in tone and tint his powerful argument. The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.
I am as familiar with "The Armed Forces Officer" as is Jack Vessey. It was written after all the horrors World War II and General George C. Marshall, then Secretary of Defense, used it to tell the world and to remind our soldiers of our moral obligations with respect to those in our custody.
Colin L. Powell
* * *
Dear Mr. Chairman (John Warner):
Yesterday we discussed how the Department of State viewed the international legal obligations that flow from Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, in comparison with other relevant legal standards in U.S. law.
Our international partners expect that we will undertake good faith interpretations of the Conventions' text, consistent with their object and purpose. In a case where the treaty's terms are inherently vague, it is appropriate for a state to look to its own legal framework, precedents, concepts and norms in interpreting these terms and carrying out its international obligations. Such practice in the application of a treaty is an accepted reference point in international law. The proposed legislation would strengthen U.S. adherence to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions because it would add meaningful definition and clarification to vague terms in the treaties.
In the department's view, there is not, and should not be, any inconsistency with respect to the substantive behavior that is prohibited in paragraphs (a) and (c) of Section 1 of Common Article 3 and the behavior that is prohibited as "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment," as that phrase is defined in the U.S. reservation to the Convention Against Torture. That substantive standard was also utilized by Congress in the Detainee Treatment Act. Thus it is a reasonable, good faith interpretation of Common Article 3 to state, as the proposed legislation does, that the prohibitions found in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 fully satisfy the obligations of the United States with respect to the standards for detention and treatment established in those paragraphs of Common Article 3.
The Department of State supports this legislation and we believe it will help demonstrate to our international partners that we are committed to compliance with Common Article 3.