President, Senate Bargain Over Detainee Rights

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The White House has sent new language to Capitol Hill regarding the treatment and prosecution of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. A group of influential Republican senators have opposed a bill on the subject that is backed by the president.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Here's the latest on the debate over detainees. Facing sharp criticism, the White House has revised its proposal for questioning terror suspects and putting them on trial. Depending on who's talking, this debate affects national security, the nation's image, or even the way that American prisoners might be treated. The debate was also timed for election season, and we'll have more on that in a moment.

We begin with NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And David, first, what is the White House proposing now?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Steve, we don't know the details of what they're proposing. But what we do know is that in fact they were sending over to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John Warner a new alternative proposal last night. Clearly, the White House is trying to move closer to the position of the senators who've been holdouts on this. They don't seem to be budging much in their position. And the big bone of contention between them is what's called Common Arcticle 3 of the Geneva Conventions. That regulates both the detention and the interrogation of detainees, the so-called unlawful enemy combatants that the U.S. has in Guantanamo Bay right now. And really, what's at issue is whether the U.S. can give its own take on its interpretation of what Arcticle 3 means.

And the senators say this is really, in effect, trying to give the CIA an opening to go on with what the White House calls the program, which is a series of secret prisons and interrogation techniques that the president is unwilling to talk about.

INSKEEP: So the president urged the passage of this measure that would allow coerced testimony in trials of terror suspects. It would allow the introduction of secret evidence. This issue over the Geneva Conventions and other things -can the White House and Republican senators, who've been fiercest in the opposition, come to an agreement?

WELNA: Well, I think they can probably reach common ground over the evidences use at these trials. It's more a sticking point over this Common Arcticle 3. And we've actually kind of seen this movie before last year when Senator John McCain - who is one the senators pushing back on these military commissions proposals - insisted that they're be language that would ban the use of torture in interrogations, and this applied to both the military and the CIA. But when the president signed that bill, he left an opening for the CIA to go ahead and do what it wanted.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. David, we're talking about opposition in the Senate. Of course, this measure also has to go through the House if it's going to become law. And the House postponed its vote on the president's measure. Why'd they do that?

WELNA: Well, House leaders thought that they had the votes to go ahead and approve what was approved in committee last week, a proposal very similar to what the White House is proposing on military commissions. But as the days have gone by and there's been more criticism coming from Republican ranks, the House leaders decided not to go ahead with this vote tomorrow and instead have put it off at least until next week. It seems that what's been going on in the Senate in terms of resistance to the White House has spread to the House.

INSKEEP: Hm. You mean it's not just these three senators - McCain and the others. You've got House members who are normally quite loyal to the White House not so sure anymore.

WELNA: That's true. And I think that the concerns are being expressed by people who have strong ties to the military. And they see redoing the rules here could set a very bad precedent for other countries to redo the rules as they like, and that this could ultimately hurt U.S. service members who are picked up abroad and would be interrogated under rules that didn't follow the Geneva conventions. That's what's really at stake here.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Capitol Hill Correspondent David Welna.

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