Clinton Offers Perspective on Interrogation Rules

With the debate in Congress still unresolved, former President Bill Clinton is just the latest high-profile figure to express his views on how the U.S. should treat prisoners suspected of involvement in terrorism.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

NPR's Washington editor Ron Elving has been listening in. He joins us now. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Ron, first of all, how do Mr. Clinton's comments fit in with the congressional debate on this?

ELVING: It's clear the former president is staying current with the issues. Of course, we should note that what we just heard about was one aspect of the president's proposals. There are other questions here too; showing suspects the evidence against them at trial, and legal liability protection for American intelligence professionals under the War Crimes Act, which is very important.

But what Mr. Clinton did talk about is an idea that's not been prominent in the debate up to now and one that could be useful. You know, why not use a court in this way, in a retroactive way, come along and review the use of these techniques - what Mr. Bush calls alternative procedures, what critics might call torture, and what former President Clinton calls whacking people around -because if the approval that was required were retroactive, there would be no need to lose time preparing papers or waking up judges. And that undercuts the notion that any legal process here would waste crucial time in the prevention of a terror attack.

NEARY: Ron, are lawmakers close to a compromise on the interrogation procedures?

ELVING: Well, not visibly close. There isn't even a clear agreement on which disputes are negotiable at this point. And what they need is a bridge between giving the White House, you know, a free hand - terror suspects are different because terrorism is different from a regular war - and the Senate holdouts who don't want the U.S. to do anything that invites other countries to rewrite the Geneva Conventions on their own, because regular wars are still going to happen.

NEARY: And is it clear that both sides really want a deal on these issues?

ELVING: You know, support for the Bush plan is actually weakening on Capitol Hill right now. It had something of a near death experience on a House side committee yesterday, so that's more pressure on the Bush administration to get serious about the negotiation. And some kind of deal will have to happen before there can be any trials. And all parties say a deal is possible but it's also possible that the parties could decide to hang tough. And if that's true, maybe one side or the other is thinking that they would rather have an issue to talk about in the campaign.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us this morning, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: NPR Washington editor Ron Elving.

During our interview, President Clinton also critiqued his successor on Iran. He suggested the United States should talk with Iran. You can hear that at npr.org.

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