WASHINGTON – A Republican-controlled Senate committee dealt a blow to President Bush’s national security agenda Thursday, approving a bill that expands the legal rights afforded to terrorism detainees.
The rebuke capped a day of bruising political combat in which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., released a letter from Colin L. 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. All the “no” votes were cast by Republicans.
The center of the fight over detainees is Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, 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 administration’s bill 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 Conventions, but to “clarify” it. “No, we’re not trying to change anything,” Snow said. “We’re trying to figure out what it means.”
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 had seemed to be strengthening his political position in debate over national security policy.
Over the last week, the president had thrown Democrats on the defensive with a series of hard-hitting speeches on terrorism, as his allies tried to cast doubt about whether Democrats were tough enough to meet the threat. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed that 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.
Bush’s allies released their own letters of support for the administration plan – including one from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and one from a group of five top military lawyers, some of whom previously opposed measures that are part of the president’s proposal.
McCain has said that the tribunal bill he supports has ample legal protections for interrogators. He has argued that reinterpreting Geneva 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 Geneva, said John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, the CIA would be forced 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 with time running out in the congressional session.
The detainee legislation was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration’s earlier 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 Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected top leaders of al-Qaida who are now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can be put on trial.
Common Article 3 protections long have been supported by U.S. military officers. But in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee released Thursday, the five active-duty judge advocates general came out in favor of the administration’s bill.
And while Powell’s public rejection of the White House view is unusual for a former Cabinet member, it has been clear for some time that the onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed with the administration’s conservative line on many points.
Powell had let it be known before his resignation in early 2005 that he had doubts about the war in Iraq. Many former military officers believe adherence to the Geneva Conventions is a way to restore U.S. credibility and have been frustrated by what they see as the administration’s continuing attempts to bypass the treaty.
“You can’t rest with this administration,” said Don Guter, a retired rear admiral and the former Navy Judge Advocate General. “Eternal vigilance. It is never over.”