Senate Republicans bail on Bush’s prisoner plan

A Senate committee rebelled against President George W. Bush on Thursday, passing a bill it said would protect the rights of foreign terrorism suspects and repair a U.S. image damaged by harsh treatment of detainees.

Hours after Bush went to Capitol Hill to urge fellow Republicans to back his proposals for putting terrorism suspects on trial, a divided Senate Armed Services Committee approved its own bill which it said would meet demands of the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down Bush’s original plan.

The committee also resisted Bush’s bid to more narrowly define the Geneva Conventions’ standards for humane treatment of prisoners, which Bush said was essential to enable the CIA to elicit valuable information from detainees.

Bush has been under fire for indefinite detentions and harsh treatment of foreign suspects at Guantanamo Bay as well as abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Human rights groups say mistreatment of prisoners has damaged U.S. moral standing.

Some lawmakers say they fear the practices put American soldiers at greater risk of harm or abuse if they are captured in conflicts overseas.

The bill — pushed by chairman John Warner of Virginia and fellow Republican heavyweights John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — cleared the committee 15-9 with support from Democrats and Maine Republican Susan Collins.

The committee bill would require that defendants have access to classified evidence used against them, limit the use of hearsay evidence and restrict the use of evidence obtained by coercion.

The full Senate will take up the issue as early as next week, meaning Republicans could be in a bitter debate among themselves over national security issues which they view as key to maintaining control of Congress in November elections.

Democrats have stayed out of the fray, letting the Republicans show their divisions over Bush’s handling of detainees scooped up since the September 11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people five years ago.


Hoping to head off another setback over measures he insists are necessary to fighting the war on terrorism, Bush met earlier in a closed session with Republicans in the House of Representatives.

This month Bush was forced to acknowledge that the United States had detained high-level terror suspects at secret CIA prisons overseas. The U.S. military also revised its interrogation practices, banning such techniques as forced nudity, hooding, using dogs, conducting mock executions or simulated drownings known as “waterboarding.”

Facing a possible loss in the overall Senate, the administration said after the vote it may wait to press its case when House and Senate negotiators meet at a conference to work out a final version of the bill.

The main debate with the White House was over its effort to write definitions of what would be inhumane treatment under the Geneva Conventions. Administration officials said the standards were vague and must be clarified to protect CIA interrogators from prosecution and to allow the CIA’s “high value terrorist detention” program to continue.

But Warner, McCain and Graham said that would encourage other countries to interpret the protections to meet their own needs, which would backfire on U.S. personnel in future wars.

McCain, who was himself a prisoner in the Vietnam War, released a letter from Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, that said the “world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Powell said he opposed Bush’s bid to redefine the Geneva Conventions that require humane treatment of prisoners.

The White House countered with a letter from current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying Bush’s plan would “strengthen U.S. adherence” to the Geneva Conventions and would “help demonstrate to our international partners that we are committed to compliance” with the standards.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Richard Cowan, Donna Smith and Joanne Kenen)

© 2006 Reuters