GOP Senators challenge Bush on terror bill

The White House and three powerful GOP senators reached an impasse Wednesday over a Bush administration plan to allow tough CIA interrogations, underscoring election-season divisions among Republicans on the high profile issue of security.

In a direct challenge to President Bush, Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said his panel would meet Thursday to finalize an alternative to the White House plan to prosecute terror suspects and redefine acts that constitute war crimes. Warner, R-Va., said the administration proposal would lower the standard for the treatment of prisoners, potentially putting U.S. troops at risk should other countries retaliate.

The White House said Warner’s proposal would undermine the nation’s ability to interrogate prisoners and arranged an extraordinary conference call for reporters in which the nation’s top intelligence official criticized Warner’s plan.

“If this draft legislation were passed in its present form, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency has told me that he did not believe that the (interrogation) program could go forward,” National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said.

The unusually public dispute between the White House and the senators comes as Republicans face a robust Democratic challenge this November for control in Congress. The GOP is trying to sell voters on its tough stance on national security, and Bush has said legislation allowing him to prosecute terrorists is a key component to winning the war.

The dispute echoed last year’s showdown between Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over legislation banning cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees. The White House threatened to veto that proposal, contending the language would hamstring interrogators, but eventually bowed to overwhelming congressional support for McCain’s measure.

McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have joined Warner this year in opposing Bush’s bill. Several other Republicans and the majority of Democrats were expected to support their plan, potentially giving them the votes needed to defy Bush.

Bush planned to visit the Capitol Thursday to try persuading GOP lawmakers to back his proposal and another measure, also stalled, that would legalize the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Bush’s latest proposal would create military commissions to prosecute terror suspects and would redefine acts that constitute war crimes. Bush was forced to propose the measure after the Supreme Court ruled in June that his existing court system established to prosecute terrorism suspects was illegal and violated the Geneva Conventions.

The court ruled that Common Article 3 of the conventions, which sets a baseline standard for the treatment of prisoners of war, applies to members of al-Qaida — an assertion Bush had disputed.

The administration responded with legislation that would narrow the U.S. legal interpretation of the standards for treatment, a move that would allow tough interrogations of terror suspects and shield U.S. personnel from being prosecuted for war crimes.

More than two dozen retired military officers and former defense officials weighed in Wednesday in a letter to Warner, urging Congress not to attempt to redefine violations of Common Article 3.

“If degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible under a restrictive interpretation of Common Article 3, we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices be inflicted upon American prisoners,” they wrote.

McCain echoed their concerns. If the United States redefines abuses under the treaty, “then every nation in the world will amend Common Article 3 to their satisfaction,” McCain said. “Then the next time a special forces soldier is captured out of uniform, then that government will have their own interpretation.”

But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supports the administration’s bill, said he did not think it would endanger U.S. troops because “al-Qaida doesn’t take any prisoners. The prisoners they do take they behead.”

Warner’s decision to press ahead without GOP consensus came as the House Armed Services Committee approved the Bush administration’s proposal. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pushed through a bill that largely mimicked the White House legislation, including a provision that would bar a defendant’s access to evidence used against them if doing so would expose classified information.

A substitute amendment by Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the panel, was defeated along party lines.

While the House is expected to pass the legislation next week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has held off scheduling a vote.

Separately, the administration’s drive to preserve the president’s power over its domestic wiretapping program hit snags in the House.

The House Judiciary Committee abruptly canceled its scheduled vote on a bill by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., amid tense negotiations between GOP leaders who endorse it and an administration that says it places too many restrictions on the program.

On the other side of the Capitol, however, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave a party-line endorsement to a wiretapping bill favored by the White House.

The bill would submit the warrantless wiretapping program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for a one-time constitutional review. It also would extend from three days to seven days the time allowed for emergency surveillance before a warrant application is submitted and approved by that court.


Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman and Katherine Shrader contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press