WASHINGTON – President Bush is standing firm in his battle to get Congress to approve the White House plan for detaining, interrogating and prosecuting suspected terrorists. The Senate, though, isn't backing away from its plan either.
The president's standoff with lawmakers is over legislation authorizing military tribunals and harsh interrogations of terror suspects.
In his radio address Saturday, Bush said his proposal provides clear rules for U.S. personnel involved in detaining and questioning alleged terrorists held by the CIA.
"The information the Central Intelligence Agency has obtained by questioning men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks) has helped disrupt terrorist plots, including planned strikes inside the United States and on a U.S. Marine base in East Africa, an American consulate in Pakistan and Britain's Heathrow Airport," Bush said.
"This CIA program has saved American lives, and the lives of people in other countries," he said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee defied Bush on Thursday and approved legislation the president has vowed to block.
The president's measure would go further than the Senate measure, allowing classified evidence to be withheld from defendants in terror trials and using coerced testimony. The legislation approved by the Senate panel also would change the law that interprets the nation's obligations under the Geneva Conventions — the treaty that sets the standard for treatment of war prisoners — so that harsh interrogations of detainees would not be questioned in court.
Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina oppose the legislation drafted by the White House because they say barring a defendant from access to evidence — even if it's done under rare circumstances — would undermine the credibility of the court.
"Weakening the Geneva protections is not only unnecessary, but would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights, that they could issue their own legislative 'reinterpretations,'" McCain said in a statement released Friday. "This puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars."
McCain said there is nothing in the Senate bill that would require the administration to close its CIA detainee program. He said it protects CIA interrogators from unfair exposure to criminal and civil liability and keeps intact international obligations that protect the rights of U.S. personnel.
"To do any less risks our reputation, our moral standing and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country," McCain said.
Graham, likewise, remained insistent on the Senate approach, saying his legislation accomplishes the necessary goals of protecting CIA personnel from legal liability "without destroying Geneva Convention protections."
"What is being billed as clarifying our treaty obligations will be seen as withdrawing from the treaty obligations," Graham said in a statement. "It will set precedent which could come back to haunt us."
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, supports a House bill that takes the administration's position to move the process along, but he said he will attempt to amend the measure next week to look more like the McCain-Warner-Graham measure. He said the Senate bill would be less likely to be challenged by the Supreme Court as unlawful and violating the nation's treaty obligations.
"I don't want to give any terrorist a free pass or get-out-of-jail-free card," Skelton said.