Debate over Terrorism Tribunals Splits GOP

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President Bush invokes memories of the Sept. 11 attacks in pushing his proposal to try terrorism suspects. But key Senate Republicans say aspects of the administration plan could leave the U.S. at greater risk.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

From NPR News in Washington, D.C., this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

President Bush began his week with somber tributes to the victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. In those speeches the president linked 9/11 to the war on Iraq and to his program for tracking, questioning and trying terrorism suspects. But several key Republicans balked, saying that some of the administration's policies could put the United States at greater risk.

Yesterday Mr. Bush defended his position in a Rose Garden news conference. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: The president opened yesterday's session with reporters talking about 9/11, about New York and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm so honored to meet with family members and first responders, workers at the Pentagon, all those who still had heaviness in their heart. And - but they asked me a question, you know, they kept asking me, what do you think the level of determination for this country is in order to protect ourselves? That's what they wanted to know.

GONYEA: It was a turn the president has made often from the tragedy of that day to the burden he says he bears to prevent another attack. The White House earlier had left time on yesterday's schedule for a news conference when it expected smoother sailing on detainee issues this week on the Senate. That was before talks broke down with a key group of senators: John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Each has long military experience. McCain spent years as a POW, Graham as a top military lawyer. They're resisting legislation the president wants, to set rules for questioning and trying terror suspects. The president needs Congressional authority because the Supreme Court back in June struck down what the White House was doing on its own.

A crux of this dispute is Mr. Bush's desire to revise a section of the Geneva Conventions regarding detainees. Here's the president yesterday.

President BUSH: And that Common Article 3 says that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity. That's very vague. What does that mean? Outrages upon human dignity. That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation. And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.

GONYEA: Reporters yesterday asked about arguments the senators raised against the president's revisions, that altering the Geneva Conventions could lead other nations to do the same, putting U.S. soldiers at risk; that holding trials where the accused can't see the evidence may not satisfy the Supreme Court.

This week Colin Powell, Mr. Bush's former secretary of state and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, weighed in on the debate, supporting the senators and warning that the president's proposal could hurt the U.S. image in the world and its moral standing in the war on terror.

Yesterday the president would not talk about Powell, instead saying that the version of the bill preferred by McCain, Warner and Graham would force the CIA to shut down an aggressive interrogation program that Mr. Bush says has prevented terror attacks.

President BUSH: I will tell you this. I've spent a lot of time on this issue, as you can imagine, and I've talked to professionals, people I count on for advice. These are people that are going to represent those on the front line of protecting this country.

GONYEA: For their part, Democrats seem content to watch this showdown between the White House and its dissidents. Burned on national security in the last two elections, Democrats see the GOP's intra-party debate as affirming their long time contention that the president's views should not be the only views worthy of consideration.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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