Bush Defends Policy on Detainees, Iraq Strategy

President Bush defends the rules he wants to use in handling terror suspects in a news conference held in the White House Rose Garden. In addition, the president defended his administration's handling of the war in Iraq. But he also said he would be glad to have this November's mid-term elections decided on the performance of the U.S. economy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Despite opposition from key members of his own party, President Bush stuck to his guns today, defending his rules for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists. At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, a sometimes testy president said he would shut down the CIA's program to question terrorism suspects if Congress does not approve his rules.

NPR's David Greene begins our coverage.

DAVID GREENE: The way President Bush sees it, his detainee program was moving along fine until this summer when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The justices said the U.S. must abide by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which outlaws inhumane treatment of prisoners, and the court said the military tribunals Mr. Bush set up to try terrorism suspects were outside established U.S. law.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Supreme Court said you must work with Congress. We are working with Congress to get a good piece of legislation out.

GREENE: But essentially Mr. Bush asked Congress to approve pretty much just what the Supreme Court had rejected, and in doing so he's run into stronger than expected resistance. One surprise came when former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the resisters, saying Mr. Bush was rewriting the Geneva Conventions, hurting America's image and endangering U.S. troops held overseas. Today's news conference began with a question about Powell.

Unidentified Man: If a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State feels this way, don't you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you're following a flawed strategy?

President BUSH: If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic.

GREENE: In response, the president never mentioned Powell and when the reporter asked if he might follow up, Mr. Bush said no, you can't. Instead, he focused on his message of the day that if lawmakers don't specify how Geneva applies to U.S. interrogators, he may halt the CIA's questioning of high-value terrorists.

President BUSH: So Congress has got a decision to make. Do you want the program to go forward or not?

GREENE: Mr. Bush is opposed by three Republican senators with strong military ties - John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They say that if Congress starts tweaking language to define what the Geneva Conventions mean, it could put U.S. troops at risk. If a nation such as North Korea or Iran captured an American, they might decide to interpret inhumane treatment in their own way.

David Gregory of NBC News engaged Mr. Bush in a bit of dialogue on this criticism.

President BUSH: I know you think it's an important point.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY (NBC News): Sir, with respect, if other countries interpret the Geneva Conventions as they see fit, as they see fit, you're saying that you'd be okay with that?

President BUSH: I am saying that I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt. And that by clarifying Article 3 we make it stronger. We make it clearer. We make it definite. And I will tell you again, David, you can ask every hypothetical you want, but the American people have got to know the facts. And the bottom line is simple. If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program's not going forward.

GREENE: When reporters brought up Iraq, Mr. Bush was far less animated. He acknowledged that the top U.S. commander, General George Casey, may not be scaling down U.S. troops anytime soon.

President BUSH: You know, I was hoping we would have, be able to, you know, hopefully Casey would come and say you know, Mr. President, there's a chance to have fewer troops there. It looked like that might be the case until the violence started rising in Baghdad.

GREENE: The president was asked whether he thought voters this November in midterm elections would focus more on national security or the economy. After a long week of focusing on national security, Mr. Bush rather surprisingly said he hoped the election would be based on the performance of the economy.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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