WASHINGTON – Top White House officials took a harder line Wednesday on a new system to try terrorism suspects, telling Republican senators that President Bush will soon formally propose a tribunal structure with only minor changes from the military commissions that were ruled unconstitutional last month.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and national security adviser Stephen Hadley met with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offering their views on a new tribunal structure that they said could pass constitutional muster with a Supreme Court that rebuked the White House in June. The senators said Bush will give Congress a proposal in the next week or two.
But Senate Republican aides familiar with the discussion said the White House position has hardened since a White House meeting earlier this month, when Hadley assured the same senators the White House could accept tribunals based largely on existing military law, known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That could place Bush in a collision course with the Senate, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers is preparing legislation that would hew closely to military law in outlining more rights for defendants than the administration wants.
“They prefer starting with the commissions as currently structured, and adding a few changes,” said a senior Senate Republican aide who spoke on the condition on anonymity because no proposal has been formalized. “Clearly, some (senators) believe that we have to take more from the UCMJ than the administration, at this time, wants.”
The Bush administration last week offered starkly mixed signals, first releasing a Defense Department memo pledging that detainee treatment would abide by the Geneva Conventions, then sending lawyers from the Justice and Defense departments to testify before the House and Senate that certain parts of the conventions remain problematic and Congress need only ratify the original commission plan to meet the Supreme Court’s requirements for a legislative blessing.
The Senate Armed Services Committee concluded three days of hearings with testimony from the military’s most senior lawyers, or judge advocates general, who said the existing rules for courts-martial should be the starting point for new legislation.
But many Republicans – and some Democrats – believe court-martial rules would afford too much protection to terrorism suspects.