Week in Review: Interrogation Debate, Elections

Highlights include a GOP split over how to deal with terrorism suspects; the implications of primary elections in nine states and the District of Columbia; and intensifying violence in Darfur.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): General Powell's intentions are clear: to redefine Common Article 3 would add to these doubts; furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk. As former secretary of state, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, I think he probably deserves some consideration.

SIMON: Senator John McCain of Arizona speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. The committee was debating legislation proposed by President Bush that would have redefined Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which deals with the treatment and trial of terror suspects. And in a letter to Senator McCain, former Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed his strong opposition.

Dan Schorr is away this week, and we're joined by our friend, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Juan, thanks for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And this is quite a split that's opened on the Republican side, between not only Senator McCain but John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all Republicans with significant military careers. What's the basis of the dispute? How serious is it?

WILLIAMS: It's a pretty serious dispute over Article 3 of the Geneva Convention and having to do with the treatment of prisoners. What we're talking about is not only the treatment of prisoners but how we detain them, interrogate them, how we prosecute them, whether or not they're allowed to see evidence against them - even evidence that's been coerced - whether or not we are allowed to do things like water boarding prisoners, which is simulated drowning.

And you talk about the split. It's such an interesting split because the White House had hoped to put Democrats in a posture, going into this campaign season, where they were going to be on the defensive with regard to allowing the administration to go forward in going after terrorists and getting information from terrorists. Instead, the split is intramural, inside the Republican Party, and you have a split where you have people like McCain, who as you know was a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam. You have people like Lindsey Graham, a former Air Force prosecutor, former, you know, advocate judge himself in the military. John Warner, one of the last World War II veterans in the Senate. And they're taking on a president who never went to war, and so it so it looks like, you know, the military people versus the civilian people.

And then you throw in Colin Powell, as you mentioned, and of course he's the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former secretary of state. And he's saying here is the moral basis of the U.S. effort against terror being challenged.

SIMON: Now, the president says that that statute is so vague and it's very difficult to know what is permissible to do, and it's written from another time and place.

WILLIAMS: Well, and here - that's the - he has two points to make, Scott. One is that - and I might add that Secretary Rice sort of countered the former Secretary of State Powell by saying that really what the administration wants to do is clarify the basis for Article 3, and it's not to do away with the protections under the Geneva Conventions.

And the second thing the president said was, you know, there's been important information taken from people - such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, one of the alleged masterminds of 9/11 - that has helped the U.S. government to stop terrorist plots. That - and that you've got to allow people in the CIA who are engaged in this to go about their business with a clear set of rules so that they won't later be prosecuted, or risk prosecution.

That's the strength of the president's argument. But for now you're getting a response from people like Senator McCain and Senator Warner, who are saying, this does not in anyway stop you from detaining people or questioning them, but we have to have a strong basis for whatever prosecution takes place and to have the world believe that we really are on a higher moral ground.

SIMON: Can the president prevail in the Senate or...

WILLIAMS: I don't think so. What you had on Thursday was a vote where you had those three joining - joined by eight Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee - I'm sorry, 11 Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee - to win. And if they hold tight, even with the House - and the House is likely to give the president more - something more like what he wants, they will stop anything from taking place. So the president has to find some way to craft a compromise with those senators.

SIMON: Primary elections held this week in nine states in the District of Columbia. What do you notice?

WILLIAMS: Well, you got to notice Lincoln Chaffee's victory in Rhode Island. Chaffee will now run against Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat. But you know, it's odd. Chaffee is a guy who didn't even vote for President Bush in the last election. He voted for Bush's father sort of as a protest. Didn't support Bush on the war in Iraq. But the White House needs to try to hold on to the Senate and they're not willing to risk Lincoln Chaffee. And the good news for the...

SIMON: And they support...

WILLIAMS: That's why they support - and the good news is, they were able to support him and carry him to the finish line. If his more conservative challenger, Steve Laffey - Mayor of Cranston - had been able to win, it was unlikely that the Republicans would have any chance to hold on to that Senate seat.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And the White House supported a moderate in Arizona, too. Moderate Republican.

WILLIAMS: That's right. They supported Steve Huffman, who was in the race to replace Jim Colby, who's the retiring congressman. But former State Senator Randy Graff was able to come ahead and win, and that was against White House support. So it's interesting. Here we have splits emerging within the party. Who's the moderate, who's the conservative? Where's the White House strategy in terms of trying to hold the line?

The president needs as much as possible to retain control of that House, because without the House and, you know, the possibility of a diminished support - a majority in the Senate - it makes him all the more a lame duck for the final years of his administration.

SIMON: I want to talk about Darfur, because the time is running out for the African Union peacekeepers. Mandate expires at the end of the month. The violence there is intensifying. The government in Khartoum says it will not let in U.N. peacekeeping troops. Prime Minister Blair said just this morning in London, the time for the world to act is now.

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. And even yesterday in the Rose Garden, President Bush used this as the prime example of why he says Americans have questions about the effectiveness of the United Nations. Why is it that we can allow this horror to continue and we all acknowledge it? He said, you know, the United States government has deemed it genocide. And yet the United Nations somehow doesn't able - is unable to act.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Is it - is there the possibility or the prospect that over the next two weeks this issue has drawn so much attention and so much resolve that, for example, the Chinese government might decide to drop their opposition? Or is that simply out of the question?

WILLIAMS: I think you have to look here at self-interest, unfortunately. And in the case of China, you're looking at whether or not they feel that - given their interest in maintaining influence in the region and possible markets in the region and getting resources in the region - would be complicated by taking a stand.

SIMON: This - finally this week: Bob Dylan has a new CD out. Okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: It's called Modern Times. And he has been accused of borrowing phrases, unattributed, from Henry Timrod, who's the Confederate poet of the Civil War era. For example, Mr. Dylan says, More frailer than the flowers, those precious hours. Now, his supporters, if you please, in this dispute say, well, that's the folk tradition. Okay? You just borrow phrases.

All right, I'm going to - the Henry Timrod poem, as Bob Dylan might have rendered it. Okay?

WILLIAMS: All right.

SIMON: (Singing) Well, the precious hours. Oh, here where in that summer noon I basked and strove with logic frailer than the flowers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh. Where do you stand on this, Juan?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I must say hats off to you, Mr. Simon. That was wonderful. But you know what? It's not unprecedented for Bob Dylan to borrow from poets. He's done it from Japanese poets and now he's doing it from the man who was known as the poet of the Confederacy. And it's beautiful stuff, without a doubt. But it's odd and...

SIMON: Should you put a footnote on the liner notes?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think he should credit people. You know? I think you should.

SIMON: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: And I think that also, given our history, the idea that the man is the poet of the - poet laureate of the Confederacy, it's odd for Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan's always been such a progressive sort of force in the American culture. It's odd to see it. But nonetheless, it's not a political statement, I hope. It's more like an artistic acknowledgement. As I was doing to you: a tip of the hat.

SIMON: Thanks very much. Juan Williams.

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