Bush Defends Changes to Detainee Rules

In a press conference at the White House President Bush defends his preferred policy on detainee interrogation, saying his administration's proposals will "clarify" Geneva Conventions guidelines. On Thursday, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee joined Democrats to back a proposal contrary to Bush's position.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Madeleine Brand is away. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls for humane treatment of terror detainees. First, detainee politics.

President Bush spoke to reporters earlier today, this one day after fellow Republicans had blocked White House legislation on the program for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists. Here's some of what the president said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I have one test for this legislation. I'm going to ask one question as this legislation proceeds, and it's this. The intelligence community must be able to tell me that the bill Congress sends to my desk will allow this vital program to continue. That's what I'm going to ask.

CHADWICK: And when he talks about a vital program, he means an interrogation program. But key Republicans, including Senators John Warner and John McCain from the Senate Armed Services Committee, have approved a rival proposal that they say will hew more to the Geneva Convention. They had public support in the form of a letter from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, joined now by NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, welcome back to the show.

DON GONYEA: Hi, glad to be here.

CHADWICK: So the president was asked about General Powell's letter to Senator McCain, which said, quote, “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Here's Mr. Bush's response to that.

President BUSH: We didn't ask for this war. You might remember the 2000 campaign. I don't remember spending much time talking about what it might be like to be a commander in chief in a different kind of war. But this enemy has struck us, and they want to strike us again.

CHADWICK: Don, sounds like the president is fairly annoyed with what happened in the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

GONYEA: Absolutely. And notice in that answer - and it was a good bit longer than what we just heard there - he didn't mention Colin Powell by name, because that gets very tricky. You can't really talk about Colin Powell, your former secretary of state, without praising him. So instead of praising Powell and saying we disagree, he just stuck to his guns on this and he said he still expects the Congress to pass this quickly.

He said time is running out. He conveyed it with a sense of urgency, that there are new threats every day. And Alex, here's a big message, that this president is going to use the bully pulpit, the megaphone of the presidency, to define the terms of the debate, and he'll do it in places like a Rose Garden news conference on a Friday.

CHADWICK: Well, he's been talking about this for the last two weeks, talking a lot about national security, the war on terror. But this debate between the president and his fellow Republicans, it centers on the meaning of what's called Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. It bars outrages upon human dignity, and the president got a question on that today as well.

President BUSH: It's very vague. What does that mean, outrages upon human dignity? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation.

CHADWICK: Mr. Bush has said that interrogations actually can't go on right now, Don, because the interrogators, the people who work for the CIA, feel like they don't have a legal basis to do this, and it's urgent, he says, urgent for Congress to address this.

GONYEA: And he says if the version that the Senate committee passed yesterday -the one backed by McCain and Warner and Graham and Senator Collins from Maine -passes, then the program would have to end. He really says that under this Common Article 3, U.S. personnel don't know exactly what they can do. Now, the criticism from the other side is that you don't tamper with the Geneva Conventions, that other countries may start tampering with them as well, and who knows how U.S. prisoners will be treated when they're captured somewhere?

CHADWICK: Okay, we've got more on that coming up here. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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