GOP split over detainee treatment

Unity among Republicans on Capitol Hill is once again being tested over the treatment of suspected terrorists, with lawmakers trying to decide in an election season how military detainees should be tried and what their rights should be.

After a Supreme Court ruling last month striking down the Bush administration’s secret military tribunal system, many conservatives agree that Congress must pass legislation authorizing such a system.

“There is, I think, little doubt that Congress should act and act promptly, to overrule this decision by statute,” Daniel Collins, a lawyer based in Los Angeles and a former Justice Department official in the Bush administration, said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A copy of the remarks was obtained in advance by The Associated Press.

Led by Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee’s hearing was the first of three this week planned by congressional panels. The House and Senate Armed Services committees also were conducting hearings.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Monday that the Senate is unlikely to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of suspected terrorists until after Congress’s August recess. His plan not to act until this fall pushes the issue squarely into election season, when Republicans will be seeking support from voters by arguing that they are strong on national security issues.

A June poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, before the court decision, found that 57 percent of Americans support holding suspected terrorists at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison without trial, while 37 percent oppose doing so.

Drafting a legislative package that would satisfy key House and Senate members will be a difficult task because the issue cuts across committee jurisdictions and has prompted varying opinions, even among Republicans. Specter has already introduced his own legislation, which would authorize a tribunal system but impose requirements on the Defense Department to assure that each prisoner is afforded certain rights.

“We need to have a body of law directed at this new battlefield” against terrorists, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also is likely to weigh in on the matter. McCain last year successfully pushed through legislation barring the mistreatment of detainees. The Bush administration adamantly opposed the legislation at one time, and it has since maintained that detainees are not protected under the Geneva Conventions, intended to safeguard prisoners of war from abusive treatment.

The Supreme Court ruled last month, however, that Bush’s military commissions violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949.

Lawmakers and congressional aides say there are a range of options that could be pursued, including passing legislation specifically authorizing Bush’s proposed military tribunals or setting up a system similar to military courts-martial.

Intended to protect classified information, the military tribunals would grant fewer rights to suspected terrorists. Defendants also would have limited rights to appeal.

A group of retired military officers who oppose the Bush administration’s position on the treatment of detainees on Friday asked members of Congress to block the appointment of the Pentagon’s general counsel to a seat on a federal court. They cited his role in crafting the Pentagon’s detainee policy.

William J. Haynes II has been nominated for seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

© 2006 The Associated Press