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GOP split over detainee rights

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September 7, 2006

By ANNE PLUMMER FLAHERTY

The GOP is once again divided over how the nation should treat its most dangerous terror suspects, setting up a showdown in Congress just weeks away from elections when all members will try to sell themselves as tough on terror.


President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the CIA had secret prisons oversees and defended the practice of tough interrogations to force terrorists to reveal plots to attack the United States and its allies.

He revealed that 14 suspects, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had been turned over to the Defense Department and moved to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial.

The president also sent Congress a legislative proposal that would aid the government in prosecuting terrorists using secret military tribunals. The military’s top lawyers and a Justice Department official were expected to discuss the plan Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee.

Bush’s announcement was immediately praised by those who said his policies were necessary to win the war on terror.

"My interest is to protect our troops on the battlefield from becoming involved in a legal quagmire which would prevent us from effectively pursuing terrorists and to ensure that America can effectively protect its citizens," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who chairs the Armed Services panel.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he would like to take up the bill on the Senate floor as soon as possible, leaving open the door for a vote on the measure before lawmakers break at the end of the month for election campaigning.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Bush’s decision to prosecute the terrorists held by the CIA was long overdue. But, he added, the military commission system should be properly vetted through the Armed Services Committee.

"The last thing we need is a repeat of the arrogant, go-it-alone behavior that has jeopardized and delayed efforts to bring these terrorists to justice for five years," Reid said.

While Bush’s proposal could allow the administration to begin prosecuting high-profile terrorists as Republicans fight to keep their majority in Congress, his plan also presents political risks.

GOP moderates and Democrats oppose some aspects of the proposal because they say it could set a dangerous precedent. The legislation would deny certain legal rights to defendants common in civilian and military courts, such as the ability to access all evidence used in the prosecution to mount an adequate defense and to ban hearsay and coerced testimony.

GOP moderates challenging the proposal include three senators with hefty credentials: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam; Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former military lawyer who still serves in the Air National Guard as a reserve judge; and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Last year, Bush threatened to veto legislation proposed by the three senators to ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of military detainees. He then signed the prohibition into law after the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of it.

While Frist has voiced support for Bush’s plan, Warner is spearheading his own draft. Meanwhile, two separate proposals are being devised by the House Armed Services Committee, one by Hunter and another by Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Bush previously denied that he needs legislation to convene military commissions to prosecute unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court ruled in June that his system was illegal and violated treaty obligations.

Democrats simultaneously praised and scolded the president’s announcement.

"It’s a shame that it took a Supreme Court opinion, a law banning torture and public outcry to get him here," said Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "He should have done this years ago, not on the eve of an election."

Bush’s announcement "is essentially a mea culpa, cloaked in rhetoric," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was skeptical the announcement would mean an end to the CIA prison program. Declining to discuss the details of the program because they were classified, Rockefeller, D-W.Va., would only note both the effectiveness and intense controversy surrounding the government’s interrogation system.

Regarding the announcement to transfer the handful of CIA detainees, Rockefeller said "they’ll have to show me it’s significant" and a shift in policy.