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Senate Panel, Rebuffing Bush, Approves Terror Tribunal Measure

James Rowley / Bloomberg.com | September 14 2006

A Senate committee, in a bipartisan rebuff to President George W. Bush, approved military tribunal legislation that would give more legal protection to suspected terrorists than the administration wants.

Four of the 13 Republicans on the panel joined the 11 Democrats to pass their version of the measure, rejecting Bush's proposal to bar defendants from seeing classified evidence prosecutors may want to use in court. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed the Senate approach, warning that the Bush administration is risking the safety of U.S. troops and worldwide opinion by permitting harsh treatment of detainees.

The committee acted just hours after the president made an unusual visit to Capitol Hill to urge support for his proposals on domestic eavesdropping and military tribunals. Meeting with House Republicans, Bush said he reminded them that ``the most important job of government is to protect the homeland.''

Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee voted 52-8 to adopt a measure that closely resembles the president's military tribunal proposal. The administration is encountering more resistance in the Senate.

Today's Armed Services Committee vote would let suspected terrorists see evidence used against them and would bar statements obtained through torture or inhumane treatment. It also would authorize military judges to fashion declassified summaries of evidence and to dismiss charges if the prosecutors don't consent to the disclosures.

``We are not going to win the war by killing every terrorist with a bomb or a bullet,'' South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters before the committee met. ``You win the war by persuading those people in the Mideast to reject terrorism.''

The legislation is needed to restart war-crimes tribunals Bush set up at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Supreme Court invalidated those tribunals in June, ruling that detainees are protected by the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war prisoners.

Republican Strategy

Republican opposition to Bush's plan has complicated the party's strategy of highlighting national security issues before Congress adjourns to campaign for the Nov. 7 election.

``Every senator and congressman should understand this is not about November 2006. This is not about your re-election. It is about those who take risks to defend America,'' Graham told reporters.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has said he may call up the president's proposal for debate on the Senate floor, blocking the committee measure. If that happens, McCain said he would propose amendments to change the administration version.

Senate Republicans

Graham joined the panel's chairman, Virginia Republican John Warner, and Arizona Republican John McCain in resisting Bush's demand to redefine the terms ``cruel, inhumane and degrading'' in describing treatment barred by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Changing the definitions could expose captured Americans to greater risks, they argue.

Powell, in a letter to McCain, endorsed the Senate measure. ``The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,'' he said.

Bush is seeking the change to give military and Central Intelligence Agency interrogators more flexibility to question detainees and continue the program of questioning suspected terrorists.

``We must be able to interrogate people who have information about future attacks,'' Bush told reporters at the White House. ``I will resist any bill that does not enable the program to go forward.''

Transferring Prisoners

Bush on Sept. 6 announced the transfer to Guantanamo Bay of 14 high-value al-Qaeda prisoners from CIA prisons. He said the CIA had gained valuable information from their interrogations that helped thwart terrorist plots. Bush said the CIA will continue using ``black sites'' to question captured terrorists.

Graham, a former Air Force lawyer, said that if the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions is changed, ``why wouldn't every other country do the same thing, have their secret police tell them to change the treaty obligations?''

The measure approved today would bar civil suits against CIA agents or military personnel by detainees for injuries or death that cite Geneva Conventions protections. It would allow prosecution of U.S. interrogators for ``grave breaches'' of the conventions under the War Crimes Act.

McCain, a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War who was tortured during five years of captivity as a prisoner of war, said changing the U.S. interpretation of the treaty would endanger American soldiers in future wars.

``We are concerned about the plight of American servicemen who may be captured in future conflicts,'' he said.

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