White House, GOP Senators Strike Deal on Terror Detainees

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The New York Sun

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and Senate Republicans announced agreement yesterday on the interrogation and trial of suspects in the war on terror, clearing a major obstacle blocking legislation at the top of the GOP election-year agenda.

“We have a legislative framework that would allow terrorists to be brought to justice,” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, emerging from a meeting in the office of Majority Leader Frist.

“The agreement that we’ve entered into gives the president the tools he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice,” one of three rebellious GOP lawmakers who told President Bush he couldn’t have the legislation the way he initially asked for it, Senator McCain of Arizona, said.

“There’s no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved,” Mr. McCain said, referring to international agreements that cover the treatment of prisoners in wartime.

Details of the agreement were sketchy.

The central sticking point had involved a demand from Mr. McCain, Senator Warner of Virginia, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for a provision making it clear that torture of suspects would be barred.

One official said that under the agreement, the administration agreed to drop language that would have stated an existing ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was enough to meet Geneva Convention obligations. Convention standards are much broader and include a prohibition on “outrages” against “personal dignity.”

In turn, this official said, negotiators agreed to clarify what acts constitute a war crime. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he had not been authorized to discuss the details.

The agreement did not extend to a related issue — whether suspects and their lawyers would be permitted to see any classified evidence in the cases against them.

Mr. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he won’t consider the agreement sealed until Mr. Bush signs it. That seemed a formality, given that his top national security adviser helped negotiate it.

An accord would fulfill a Republican political and legislative imperative — pre-election party unity on an issue related to the war on terror and possible enactment of one of Mr. Bush’s top remaining priorities of the year.

“I’m pleased we have agreement,” said Mr. Frist, who had intervened earlier in the day to tell senators it was time to come to an accord after more than a week of high-profile intraparty disagreement. He said other key lawmakers in the House and Senate would spend the next few days reviewing the compromise.

The evident compromise came less than a week after Bush emphatically warned lawmakers at a news conference he would shut down the interrogation of terror suspects unless legislation was sent to his desk. “Time’s running out,” he said.

The White House shifted its tone from combative to compromising within 48 hours, though, and officials began talking of a need for an agreement that all sides would be comfortable with.

Whatever the outcome, the controversy has handed critics of the president’s conduct of the war on terror election-year ammunition.

Mr. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, dismayed the administration when he sided with Messrs. Warner, McCain, and Graham. He said Mr. Bush’s plan, which would have formally changed the American view of the Geneva Conventions on rules of warfare, would cause the world “to doubt the moral basis” of the fight against terror and “put our own troops at risk.”

The handling of suspects is one of two administration priorities relating to the war on terror.

The other involves the president’s request for legislation to explicitly allow wiretapping without a court warrant on international calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists in America and abroad. One official said Republicans had narrowed their differences with the White House over that issue, as well, and hoped for an agreement soon.

Republican leaders have said they intend to adjourn Congress by the end of the month to give lawmakers time to campaign for re-election.

The New York Sun

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