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McCain, Powell deliver blows to Bush proposal on detainees
Seattle Times
Los Angeles Times
September 15, 2006

WASHINGTON — A Republican-controlled Senate committee dealt a blow to President Bush's national-security agenda Thursday, approving a bill that would give terrorism detainees more legal rights than the administration wanted.

The rebuke capped a day of bruising political combat in which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., released a letter from Colin Powell, the president's former secretary of state, warning against Bush's proposal to allow more extreme methods of interrogating detainees.

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell said, adding Bush's proposal "would put our troops at risk."

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved McCain's bill on a 15-9 vote. The panel's 11 Democrats joined four Republicans — McCain, Chairman John Warner of Virginia, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — to recommend that the full Senate adopt the bill. Republicans cast all the "no" votes.

The center of the fight over detainees is Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which establishes basic protections that must be offered to all combatants — whether they are terrorists, warring tribes, insurgents or any other kind of irregular fighter.

The detainee legislation was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration's rules for prosecuting accused terrorists, in part because the administration's system of military commissions violated Common Article 3 protections.

The White House has pressed Congress to enact its proposed legislation so that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected top leaders of al-Qaida who are now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, can be put on trial.

The alternative bill backed by the administration would reinterpret Common Article 3 to provide the same protections as the U.S. Constitution. The administration contends Common Article 3, which outlaws torture as well as "affronts to personal dignity," is too vague.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday that the administration was not trying to amend the Geneva Convention but to "clarify" it.

"Clarify, modify ... I mean, please," McCain said yesterday. "You are changing a treaty which no other nation on Earth has changed for the first time in 57 years."

Powell's broad criticism of the president's approach to terrorism surprised many in Washington.

And the rebuff to the White House by the Senate Armed Services Committee was a remarkable setback for Bush, who after a series of hard-hitting speeches on terrorism last week seemed to be strengthening his political position in the debate over national-security policy. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed Bush's overall approval rating and marks on handling the war in Iraq have risen modestly.

But Thursday began with the president heading to Capitol Hill to rally his GOP troops and ended with the military-tribunal fight that pitted Bush against senior members of his own party and against Powell.

The debate also has reopened divisions between the president and McCain. The Arizona senator was Bush's main challenger in the 2000 presidential primary and has been a frequent thorn in his side during his time in the White House.

McCain has argued that reinterpreting the Geneva Convention would send a message that the United States was no longer following the accepted definitions of Common Article 3, giving other countries and armed groups an excuse to strip international protections from captured U.S. soldiers.

But without clarifying the Geneva Convention, said John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, the CIA would have to close down a program under which it interrogates high-value detainees, because intelligence officers would be unsure of the rules and could be exposed to prosecution or lawsuits.

With moderate Republicans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats supporting McCain's bill, administration supporters conceded Thursday that Bush's proposal was unlikely to prevail in the Senate.

"We're fighting an uphill battle," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The House Armed Services Committee has passed a bill that mirrors Bush's proposal. The full House is expected to approve its tribunal legislation next week.

If the full Senate adopts the Armed Services Committee recommendation — a strong possibility given the influence that McCain, a former prisoner of war, wields over detainee issues — it would set up difficult House-Senate negotiations.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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