An obviously-angry President George W. Bush declared war on Senators from his own party Friday after a Republican revolt in the Senate threatened tough anti-terror legislation that would allow torture of prisoners.
A defiant Bush rejected warnings that the United States had lost the high moral ground to adversaries.
"It’s flawed logic," he snapped.
Bush is trying to rush his legislation through Congress, hoping a hyped sense of urgency will work as it did with the Constitution-defying USA Patriot Act that lawmakers passed without reading in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
"Time’s running out" for the legislation, he warned, with Congress set to adjourn in a few weeks.
The bitter president called a Rose Garden news conference to confront a Republican rebellion led by Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine.
To the administration’s dismay, Colin Powell, Bush’s former secretary of state, has joined with the lawmakers. Powell said Bush’s plan to redefine the Geneva Conventions would cause the world "to doubt the moral basis" of the fight against terror and "put our own troops at risk."
Seven weeks before the November elections, the dispute left Republicans fighting among themselves — rather than with Democrats — about national security issues that have been a winning theme for the GOP in past elections.
Responding to Bush, McCain rejected the president’s assertion that an alternative bill approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee dealing with the trial and interrogation of terror suspects would require the closure of the CIA’s detainee program.
McCain said the measure would protect agents from criminal and civil liability and, by not reinterpreting the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, uphold the nation’s obligations.
"To do any less risks our reputation, our moral standing and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country," the senator said.
Democrats were eager to point out the GOP disarray.
"When conservative military men like John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell stand up to the president, it shows how wrong and isolated the White House is," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "These military men are telling the president that in the war on terror you need to be both strong and smart, and it is about time he heeded their admonitions."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "Instead of picking fights with Colin Powell, John McCain and other military experts, President Bush should change course, do what the American people expect, and finally give them the real security they deserve."
Warner, a former Navy secretary, is chairman of the Armed Services Committee. McCain is a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years in enemy captivity during the Vietnam War. Graham is a former Air Force Reserve judge. Powell, a retired general, is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On another major national security issue, Bush said he was disappointed that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq was climbing rather than falling. He said hopes for troop withdrawals were dashed by a spike in violence in Baghdad, where in just the past two days more than 130 people were killed in attacks or tortured and dumped in rivers and on city streets.
"Look, we all want the troops to come home as quickly as possible," the president said. Polls show the war is unpopular among Americans, and Republicans worry it could cost them votes. He said he would base troop levels on the recommendations of his top commanders, Gen. William Casey and John Abizaid, and said he had great confidence in both men.
Bush took vehement exception when asked about Powell’s assertion that the world might doubt the moral basis of the fight against terror if lawmakers went along with the administration’s proposal to come up with a U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Convention’s ban on "outrages upon personal dignity."
"If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic," Bush said. "It’s just — I simply can’t accept that."
Growing animated, he said, "It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective."
Bush said the Geneva Convention’s ban was "very vague" and required clarification. "What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity?’ That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation."
He said that unless Congress acts, the CIA will end its program of tough interrogation methods that the administration says has prevented attacks.
"So Congress has got a decision to make," Bush said. "You want the program to go forward or not? I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America."
On another anti-terror matter, with Osama bin Laden still at large five years after the 9/11 attacks, Bush said he could not send thousands of troops into Pakistan to search without an invitation from the government. "Pakistan’s a sovereign nation," Bush said.
At the same time, Bush expressed frustration that the United Nations had not sent peacekeepers to stop the misery in the Darfur region of Sudan. "What you’ll hear is, well, the government of Sudan must invite the United Nations in for us to act. Well, there are other alternatives, like passing a resolution saying, we’re coming in with a U.N. force, in order to save lives."
(The Associated Press contributed parts of this story)