Bush backs down on detainees

Negotiations on how to treat enemies captured in President Bush’s war on terror spilled into the open Thursday as administration officials indicated a willingness to look at new protections for detainees in CIA and Pentagon custody.

But, officials maintained, these “enemy combatants” must not be granted certain legal rights that would expose classified information or hinder interrogations.

The Supreme Court on June 29 ruled that the Pentagon’s military tribunal system was not authorized by Congress and violates international law. The decision prompted a Pentagon memo acknowledging that military detainees must be afforded basic protections under the Geneva Conventions. Left unclear by the administration was whether detainees held by the CIA also would be protected.

The CIA has never acknowledged that it holds any members of al-Qaida. However, senior administration officials and intelligence lawyers have been in extensive meetings since the court’s decision to determine how it applies to all detainees, including those considered the most dangerous followers of Osama bin Laden.

“The court made a ruling that Common Article 3 applies to our conflict with al-Qaida,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, referring to an article of the Geneva Conventions dealing with the treatment for prisoners of war. His comment came in what was the clearest statement yet from the administration that the court ruling applies to all suspected al-Qaida members in U.S. custody, not just those at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Also at issue has been whether Congress should pass legislation authorizing the Pentagon’s more stringent tribunal system struck down by the court, or create a new system with trials similar to courts-martial used for prosecuting members of the military.

Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, described the discussion with lawmakers as ongoing.

“We’ve had some very good conversations on the subject of how we move forward,” Hadley said at a news conference in Stralsund, Germany, where he is accompanying Bush. “Where it’s going to come out is still to be worked out.”

Citing recent meetings with Hadley, Sens. John McCain and John Warner said Thursday they were told the administration would back legislation based on the Pentagon’s Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hadley also had met recently with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another GOP moderate who has been open to using the military’s court-martial system as a guide for developing a court system to prosecute detainees.

“At that time, I was under the impression that that was the administration’s position,” McCain said of his meetings with the White House. “I hope that hadn’t changed.”

But publicly, the administration continued to insist that Congress legalize the Pentagon-established military commissions.

Gonzales cited several concerns with extending rights provided by the military code of justice to al-Qaida detainees. Among them, he said, were having to tell terrorism suspects they have a right to remain silent, providing them with the military equivalent of grand jury proceedings and excluding hearsay evidence.

“There are a series of procedures and processes and rights … that I think it is appropriate to ask, is this what we want to provide to terrorists? I don’t think that they are necessarily required to be provided to terrorists.”

Warner, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was “somewhat perplexed” by comments this week by administration figures that the administration needs time to smooth over “some honest differences of opinions.”

He said he expected administration officials to submit a proposal to Congress soon after they return with Bush next week from the G-8 summit. Vowing to work on the matter through lawmakers’ August vacation, Warner said it was “absolutely imperative” that Congress pass legislation before adjourning this year.

“The eyes of the world are upon us and we must set the standards,” Warner said.

McCain, an Arizona Republican and a likely 2008 presidential contender who last year led the charge to prohibit abuse of military detainees, said America’s image was suffering because of how its war and terrorism prisoners are treated.

“We will have more wars and there will be Americans who will be taken captive,” said McCain, who was a Vietnam War POW. “If we somehow carve out exceptions to treaties to which we are signatories, then it will make it very easy for enemies to do the same to American prisoners.”

© 2006 The Associated Press