Week in Review: Detainee Bill; Chavez; Allen's Heritage

The week's events include a legislative compromise on how to interrogate suspected terrorists; Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's denunciation of President Bush as "the devil," and Sen. George Allen's feelings about his Jewish heritage.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

Senator JOHN McCain (Republican, Arizona): In this business people say who's the winners and who's the losers. There's none. We're all winners because we've been able to come to an agreement through a process of negotiation and consensus. We still have the House of Representatives to go along with this agreement. But I'm very proud of what we've accomplished today.

SIMON: Senator John McCain of Arizona, speaking Thursday after the president and the Senate agree to a compromise bill, laying out rules for the treatment and trial of terror suspects.

NPR senior news analyst, Dan Schorr, is off for the holidays, so we're joined by our friend, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. This morning he joins us from station KCSD in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Juan, thanks very much for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And the president wanted this legislation to give legal protection to CIA interrogations of terror suspects and to clarify, he said, the rules for interrogation in a new age. The senators, who challenged this - John McCain, principally, and Lindsey Graham and John Warner - wanted to provide guarantees against the torture of detainees in front of the world. With this compromise bill, how is the treatment of detainees in custody likely to change?

WILLIAMS: Not much at the moment, Scott. What we've got here is a situation where if the Congress goes ahead and approves of this next week, in the way that the Senate has handled this, the president would be in position to more liberally interpret the standards. And therefore the request that would come to him from interrogators would really be a matter of his judgment in a way that I don't know that it would change much of what they're doing right now.

Now, there is a sense coming from Jane Harman, who is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, saying that Congress has to exercise some oversight. So she's asking that the president lay out his own standards and explain the legal justification for them going forward. The one thing that didn't change is the Congress did not give the president the right to change the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Conventions.

SIMON: One of those nettlesome questions that people who've actually conducted prisoner interrogations sometimes - sometimes raise is, is there some frailty in the system if people who are about to be interrogated know that the people interrogating them will abide by rules?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's the question. But you know, from the president's point of view, Scott, it was a matter of saying that the program of interrogation must go forward. And he wanted there to be a clear set of protections for the people who are doing the interrogating. And so what he's done and what the deal, as the senators have worked it out, is to say that the interrogators, the CIA people, have to go to the president if there is some question as to whether or not they are violating things like the dignity of a suspect. Because that was part of the objection, that if you have something like dignity - if I have a woman doing the interrogation of a Muslim man, is that an assault on this integrity? Would that lead to charges in world courts and the like?

SIMON: Yeah. And of course, as the senators pointed out, any guarantee that's written, of course, would apply to U.S. prisoners of war and their detention and interrogation.

Gritty political question. Senator McCain said they're no winner or losers. Is that how you see it?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that the president came out on top in this one, if you want to do winners and losers. And I think that from the world's perspective - and believe me, world opinion is a player in this, Scott - when you have the idea that the U.S. is protected against any violations of the Geneva Conventions, that 1949 set of rules, in U.S. courts - in other words can't be used to prosecute anyone who may have violated them - in U.S. courts during the course of interrogation, but anybody can use it in other courts who might have used some abusive tactics of interrogation against U.S. soldiers, or U.S. suspects, people see a double standard.

And so the president seems to have won for the moment in the Congress. I don't know how the U.S. has done in terms of the court of world opinion.

SIMON: And the U.N. this week, where President Bush addressed the annual meeting of world leaders in the General Assembly. He was followed to the podium in good time by two others: the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who called President Bush a devil. Is this just the usual kind of bravado?

WILLIAMS: Well, no. I think lots of people were surprised at the reaction in the room, which was, there was lots of applause and not much condemnation for Hugo Chavez, you know, who said some just outrageous things, including suggesting that he smelled sulfur, as if the devil had been there. Bush had spoken earlier that day.

SIMON: He waved Noam Chomsky's book. And I see this morning it's at the top of the Amazon bestseller list. What a shame they couldn't have slipped one of your books into his hands before he went up there.

WILLIAMS: Or one of yours, Scott.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Actually, I'm grateful they didn't. But that being said, let me ask you about the defense he did get from a couple of very prominent Democrats.

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, prominent Democrats such as Charles Rangel. It's very clear because what happened was that Chavez then went up to Harlem and spoke at a church there. And Charlie Rangel made it very clear that he thought that Hugo Chavez was way out of line and can't condemn my president. Which a number of people were shocked to hear from Charlie Rangel, who is a very strong critic of not only President Bush, but his policies around the world.

And then what you heard from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the Congress, is that Hugo Chavez, in her opinion, wants to be Simon Bolivar but in fact is nothing but a thug.

So it was pretty clear there was support for the institution of the presidency from Democrats, even at a moment, you know, in advance of these midterm elections when the Democrats might have played it politically safe and just said nothing.

SIMON: Dan Schorr, as we noted, is off for the holiday. Perhaps he's in a synagogue next to Senator Allen of Virginia, who revealed this week that he has Jewish heritage unbeknownst to him because his mother concealed that background from her family. He's in a suddenly tough reelection campaign against James Webb.

Has the Senator's reaction to questions about his ancestry and his handling of the disclosure become an issue?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. You know, he was asked this question in the course of a debate with Jim Webb. And at first - the previous question was about his role and his understanding of the word macaca, which he had used as a description of a dark-skinned young man of East Indian descent at a rally. The young man was working for Webb. And what you heard from the Senator was, This is macaca, welcome to America. He was speaking in the southeastern part of the state of Virginia.

And of course what you have with the senator, Senator Allen, is he's always playing the good ol' boy. He's got his cowboy boots on and he has a history of use of the Confederate flag. People were, like, thinking, hey, this is out of line. And now all of a sudden we learn of his Jewish heritage.

And the second question then followed and he had a very strong reaction. He said it amounted to cast - to casting aspersions on him. That reaction - that angry reaction, the use of that word then caught the attention of lots of people who feel as if he has been running away from this. And according to him and according to his mother, he learned the fact of his Jewish heritage only a month ago. But people are asking, how can it be that he wasn't more curious during his whole lifetime about this?

SIMON: Well, I think he said that the casting aspersion part was that his integrity was challenged. That was the aspersion, not his heritage.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that people would conflate the two in that situation. But yes, that he - that it somehow was a challenge to him. But I think the whole aspersions business led to the question of how does he feel about Jewishness?

SIMON: Quick question. Wal-Mart followed by Target is guaranteeing generic prescription drugs to four dollars a month. Have they been able to do something that the Senate and the government hasn't been able to do?

Williams: Well, it looks that way on the surface. Now, there are some people who are saying there's a very limited list of drugs that are going to be available at four dollars a pop, you know, for your monthly supply of the prescription drugs. But I think that this is a push in a direction that, you know, you think back to the Clinton healthcare reform efforts, you think about what the president has tried; this may push it way beyond any of that, Scott.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Juan Williams.

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