By DALE McFEATTERS
The White House and a spirited band of Senate Republicans have reached a compromise over detainee-treatment legislation that spackles over an embarrassing intraparty GOP split, but leaves much about the detainees’ fate to unresolved fine print.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., praised the deal for preserving the "letter and spirit" of the Geneva Conventions. It does in affirming that gross breaches of that treaty _ murder, mutilation, sexual assault, other serious bodily harm _ are war crimes and should be treated as such. Most Americans would agree that these actions are outside the pale of civilized nations.
And Congress is to rewrite the 1997 War Crimes Act, more or less the U.S. statutory version of the Conventions, to specify what other cruel, degrading and inhumane acts, especially in the course of interrogation, are war crimes.
But President Bush is given the power to define which aggressive interrogation techniques short of war crimes are acceptable. The senators insisted that his findings be made public, but his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the specifics of the techniques would remain classified. Bush called aggressive interrogation "the single most potent tool we have in the war on terrorism." Somehow this is not a reassuring thought.
The senators also won some concessions on the military commissions that are to try the detainees. Prisoners could not be convicted on classified evidence that they and their lawyers had not seen, although the evidence could be given to them in edited or condensed form to conceal sources and methods.
Coerced evidence obtained before 2005 by cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment would be allowed if the judge permits; obtained post-2005, the evidence would be disallowed. And, in a concession to the administration, hearsay evidence would be allowed on the judge’s say-so.
House Republicans must still go along with the compromise, although it seems clear they will if the White House insists, especially with the election approaching.
The agreement would seem to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objections to the administration’s original plan for military commissions, "commissions" being a better-sounding word than the original "tribunals."
All of this may be necessary, but it shows what the war on terrorism has done to our country when the president and senior members of the Senate are locked in discussions of defining the severity and duration of mental and physical pain that can be inflicted on captives.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)