MINNEAPOLIS – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday he was satisfied that a congressional bill dealing with the treatment of terror suspects honors the Geneva Conventions.
Powell recently criticized a Bush administration plan to redefine the conventions — which set international standards on prisoner treatment — saying he feared it could cause the world "to doubt the moral basis" of America's fight against terror.
Those comments supported maverick Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner, whose opposition forced the administration to alter its proposal before a deal was reached. The measure passed by Congress prohibits the worst abuses of detainees, including rape and biological experiments, while allowing other tough tactics determined by the president.
Asked about the bill during a speech at the University of Minnesota, Powell said he's confident it will ensure the humane treatment of detainees. "We can do all the interrogating we want inside the Geneva Conventions," he said.
Powell said he knew his reservations — revealed in a letter to McCain — would be controversial, "but I believe it strongly."
Several thousand people filled Northrop Auditorium to hear Powell, who hobbled across the stage with a walking cast on his right leg, saying he tore his Achilles tendon after tripping in his backyard.
Minneapolis resident Mary Eichinger, who attended the speech, said she was glad that Powell reiterated his opposition to any major changes in how the Geneva Conventions are followed.
"You don't change your ethics for short-term gain," she said, in reference to some arguments that tougher interrogation tactics are needed to get information from terror suspects.
Powell reserved judgment on a provision that bars detainees from going to federal court to protest their detention or treatment — a right referred to as habeas corpus. He said he trusted McCain and the others who helped craft the bill and believed the courts would ultimately determine its lawfulness.
The bill also allows military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists.
While the speech was ostensibly about leadership, the public questions afterward focused on terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Powell warned that the war is in a third stage, one of "sectarian warfare," calling it the most difficult period so far because American troops alone can't solve the situation. He said troops have to stay and fight — but not forever.
"We are involved in a very difficult war that has become complex," he said.
While his words were measured and far from partisan, some comments alluded to the fierce debate about the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq. At one point, he said, "Stay the course isn't a good enough answer, because to stay the course you have to have a finish line."
However, he also struck a positive note, dismissing claims that Iraq and the war on terror have put America in one of its most precarious positions in history. He said the Nazi and Communist threats of the 20th century were much worse.
"There is more democracy (in the world) today than there has ever been before in history," he said.
Leigh McIlvaine, a university student, said she was glad Powell struck a positive note considering the turmoil surrounding Iraq and the war on terror. "His optimistic approach to the country — I liked it," she said. "It was refreshing."