Bush Faces Election Year Revolt in Own Party

This is a partial transcript from "The Beltway Boys," on September 16, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bottom line is simple: If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules — if they do not do that — the program's not going forward.


FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: I'm Fred Barnes.

MORT KONDRACKE, CO-HOST: And I'm Mort Kondracke, and we're "The Beltway Boys."

Well, the "Hot Story" is "Family Feud." Republicans had hoped to trap the Democratic Party into looking weak on terrorism again this year: one, by having the, again on NSA — against the National Security Agency's terrorist-surveillance program; and two, by voting against the tough interrogation techniques that the CIA used, according to President Bush, to stop no less than eight terrorist attacks on the United States. This political strategy is getting upset because the Democrats are going to just vote for the — the NSA program, and because — this is the family feud problem — the Democrats are hiding behind some prominent Republican senators — John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins — who are opposing the president on the interrogation program.

Here's the president vigorously defending his position on Friday.


BUSH: I think it's vital, and I have the obligation to make sure that our professionals, who I would ask to go conduct interrogations to find out what might be happening, who might be coming to this country — I got to give them the tools they need. And that is clear law.


KONDRACKE: The president says that U.S. law has got to clarify the vague language of the Geneva Convention Common Article III, which outlaws "outrages against human dignity," which could be interpreted widely.

BARNES: It could be interpreted as some things that happen on this show.


KONDRACKE: That's right.

McCain and company — including Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — say what Bush wants to do is to amend the entire Geneva Convention Common Article III, which has never been done before, which would open the United States open to charges that we're allowing torture, or practicing torture.

McCain, quoting Bush, "clarify, modify — I mean, please. You're changing a treaty which no other nation on Earth has" done — "changed for the first time in 57 years." That's the McCain position.

BARNES: Yes. Now look, you mentioned the political strategy. But what's a lot more important than this political strategy by Republicans — which I happen to think is working — but what's more important is the substantive issue involved, and that's a national-security issue. I mean, I don't know what's gotten into John McCain and John Warner and Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. They're all pretty tough — they're not wimps on national defense.

And yet I think they've forgotten somehow what their obligation is here. It's not to please world opinion; it's to protect the American national security.

You pointed out very well what Bush wants. He wants to clarify the language in this section of the Geneva Convention so it would allow the kind of interrogations that were done with Khalid Sheik Mohammed and some of the other high-value Al Qaeda leaders who were captured that led to thwarting these other attacks.

I mean, Bush in that speech a few weeks ago outlined how they went from one to another to another picking up all this information. And McCain and company want that language that, you know, any outrages against personal dignity, I mean, Mort, that just sets the bar way too low. Or maybe too high. Maybe that's what I mean. Too high.

In any case, look, as far as a political strategy, Democrats are not going to be — Democratic candidates in particular — are not going to be able to say, when asked about, Do you agree that our interrogations practices, like Bush says, shouldn't be weakened? And they say, oh, no. Well, I'm just with McCain on this. That won't suffice; they're going to have to deal with the substance of the issue, whether they like it or not.

KONDRACKE: Well, you know, I was perfectly shocked, frankly, when a McCain staffer told me that John McCain and the other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee do not know what the specific interrogation techniques that were used by the CIA are, how often they're used and all of that. That the Senate Intelligence Committee members know, but the Armed Services Committee people don't.

Now what I would suggest is that President Bush call these guys and Susan Collins down to the White House and lay it all for them, and tell them just how vital it was in securing America to have these kind of interrogation techniques.

BARNES: Now, that might work. But I'm not so sure at this point.

McCain can be very, very stubborn, as you know. And the rest are sort of following along. He's the leader here.

I'll have to say this for McCain: he is not doing this for political reasons. That's for sure. Because I think this is going to harm him tremendously in his search for the Republican presidential nomination. This will be brought up by others; they will talk about how Bush compared to McCain; they'll talk about this, you know, limiting any questioning of a practice that would have, you know, been an outrage to someone's personal dignity you couldn't do. Which obviously means, say they've gotten nothing at all out of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and all the others.

I think that's pretty clear.

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