Congressional Democrats were skeptical on Friday of a deal negotiated by three hold-out Republican senators to rein in President George W. Bush’s program to interrogate and try terrorism suspects.
As Bush’s fellow Republicans prepared to move the agreement through Congress next week, lawmakers checked the fine print of a compromise bill that would allow aggressive CIA interrogations of foreign suspects but require that they comply with Geneva Conventions, which ensures humane treatment of prisoners of war.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the deal "a substantial improvement" over Bush’s plan, but said it still had "a number of problems."
But Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, derided it for using "legal mumbo jumbo to obscure the fact that the CIA will continue to be allowed to use torture and will actually be insulated from legal liability for previous acts of torture."
Many Democrats were formulating their positions on the bill.
Bush went to Congress after the Supreme Court in June ruled that his plan for trying foreign suspects did not meet judicial standards. He has repeatedly denied charges by international critics that interrogations of suspects amount to torture.
Bush and the Senate Republicans who challenged his proposal — John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — cinched a deal on Thursday that allows aggressive CIA interrogations and would more narrowly define what is punishable as a war crime under U.S. law.
But Bush agreed to drop an effort to redefine U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
The agreement gives defendants access to classified evidence being used to convict them, although it could be in redacted or summary form. It sets stricter limits than Bush wanted on evidence obtained by coercion, requiring a judge to decide if it is reliable and in the interest of justice.
MIXED REVIEWS FROM HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATES
Congress is expected to consider the legislation next week to set up trials for suspects at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S intelligence chief John Negroponte, at a conference in Oxford, England, told Reuters and the International Herald Tribune that "work is already being done amongst our prosecutors to prepare the cases for trial," but declined to give a timetable for their start.
Human rights groups disagreed on whether the bill would significantly change CIA’s interrogations, which have been condemned for violating international standards.
Christopher Anders, of the American Civil Liberties Union, called it "a significant step back," although much better than Bush’s proposal.
But Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First said the agreement that would criminalize "serious" acts of cruelty and would bar "waterboarding" that simulates drowning, and should bar other harsh methods such as induced hypothermia.
With the deal, Bush would outline interrogation techniques that must comply with the Geneva Conventions, and the Senate and House Intelligence committees would review those.
Levin complained that while the deal limits use of testimony obtained by coercion, "it inexplicably" allows such statements obtained before December 30, 2005.
A number of Democrats also object that the deal strips detainees’ habeas corpus rights to challenge their detentions.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said excluding habeas corpus rights was unconstitutional and set a hearing on the issue for Monday.
© Reuters 2006