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Archive for Friday, September 29, 2006

Senate approves Bush’s terrorism detainee bill

September 29, 2006

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— The Senate on Thursday endorsed President Bush's plans to prosecute and interrogate terror suspects, all but sealing congressional approval for legislation that Republicans intend to use on the campaign trail to assert their toughness on terrorism.

The 65-34 vote means the bill could reach the president's desk by week's end. The House passed nearly identical legislation on Wednesday and was expected to approve the Senate bill today, sending it on to the White House.

The bill would create military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It also would prohibit some of the worst abuses of detainees like mutilation and rape, but grant the president leeway to decide which other interrogation techniques are permissible.

The White House and its supporters have called the measure crucial in the anti-terror fight, but some Democrats said it left the door open to abuse, violating the U.S. Constitution in the name of protecting Americans.

Twelve Democrats sided with 53 Republicans in voting for the bill. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., in a tough re-election fight, joined 32 Democrats and the chamber's lone independent in opposing the bill. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was absent.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped draft the legislation during negotiations with the White House, said the measure would set up a system for treating detainees that the nation could be proud of. He said the goal "is to render justice to the terrorists, even though they will not render justice to us."

Democrats said the Republicans' rush to muscle the measure through Congress was aimed at giving them something to tout during the campaign, in which control of the House and Senate are at stake. Election Day is Nov. 7.

"There is no question that the rush to pass this bill - which is the product of secret negotiations with the White House - is about serving a political agenda," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Long journey

Senate approval was the latest step in the remarkable journey that Bush has taken in shaping how the United States treats the terrorism suspects it has been holding, some for almost five years.

The Supreme Court nullified Bush's initial system for trying detainees in June, and earlier this month a handful of maverick GOP senators embarrassed the president by forcing him to slightly tone down his next proposal. But they struck a deal last week, and the president and congressional Republicans are now claiming the episode as a victory.

While Democrats warned the bill could open the way for abuse, Republicans said defeating the bill would put the country at risk of another terrorist attack.

"We are not conducting a law enforcement operation against a check-writing scam or trying to foil a bank heist," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We are at war against extremists who want to kill our citizens."

Approving the bill before lawmakers leave for the elections has been a top priority for Republicans. GOP leaders fought off attempts by Democrats and a lone Republican to change the bill, ensuring swift passage.

By mostly party-line votes, the Senate rejected Democratic efforts to limit the bill to five years, to require frequent reports from the administration on the CIA's interrogations and to add a list of forbidden interrogation techniques.

Campaign timing

The legislation could let Bush begin prosecuting terrorists connected to the Sept. 11 attacks just as voters head to the polls, and let Republicans use opposition by Democrats as fodder for criticizing them during the campaign.

"Some want to tie the hands of our terror fighters," said Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., alluding to opponents of the bill. "They want to take away the tools we use to fight terror, to handcuff us, to hamper us in our fight to protect our families."

Opposition

Democrats contended the legislation could set a dangerous precedent that might invite other countries to mistreat captured Americans. Their opposition focused on language barring detainees from going to federal court to protest their detention and treatment - a right referred to as "habeas corpus."

"The habeas corpus language in this bill is as legally abusive of rights guaranteed in the Constitution as the actions at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and secret prisons that were physically abusive of detainees," said Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel.

Bush went to Capitol Hill Thursday morning, urging senators to follow the House lead and approve the plan.

"The American people need to know we're working together to win the war on terror," he said.

That didn't stop Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., from offering an amendment that would have restored suspects' habeas corpus rights. It was rejected, 51-48.

The overall bill would prohibit war crimes and define such atrocities as rape and torture, but otherwise would allow the president to interpret the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets standards for the treatment of war prisoners.

The legislation was in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that Bush's plan to hold and prosecute terrorists was illegal.

Bush had determined prior to that ruling that his executive powers gave him the right to detain and prosecute enemy combatants. He declared these detainees, being held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and in secret CIA prisons elsewhere in the world, should not be afforded Geneva Convention protections.

U.S. officials said the Supreme Court ruling threw cold water on the CIA's interrogation program, which they said had been helpful in obtaining valuable intelligence.

Bush was forced to negotiate a new trial system with Congress. For nearly two weeks the White House and rebellious Republican senators - Graham, John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia - fought publicly over whether Bush's proposed plan would give a president too much authority and curtail legal rights considered fundamental in other courts.

Guantanamo

Under the bill, a terrorist being held at Guantanamo could be tried by military commission so long as he was afforded certain rights, such as the ability to confront evidence given to the jury and having access to defense counsel.

Those subject to commission trials would be any person "who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents." Proponents say this definition would not apply to U.S. citizens.

The bill would eliminate some rights common in military and civilian courts. For example, the commission would be allowed to consider hearsay evidence so long as a judge determined it was reliable. Hearsay is barred from civilian courts.

The legislation also says the president can "interpret the meaning and application" of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts.

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