Republicans Backbenchers Beat Bush, Leadership on Detainees
An alliance of prominent Republican Senators, Colin Powell, and Congressional Democrats have won the first round in a battle with President Bush and the Republican Congressional leadership over the treatment of suspected terrorist detainees.
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.
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.”
NYT analyst Carl Hulse notes that this is an unusal case of internecine fighting in the run-up to an election.
Instead of drawing contrasts with Democrats, the president’s call for creating military tribunals to try terror suspects — a key substantive and political component of his fall agenda — has erupted into a remarkably intense clash pitting some of the best-known warriors in the Republican Party against Mr. Bush and the Congressional leadership.
At issue are definitions of what is permissible in trials and interrogations that both sides view as central to the character of the nation, the way the United States is perceived abroad and the rules of the game for what Mr. Bush has said will be a multigenerational battle against Islamic terrorists.
Democrats have so far remained on the sidelines, sidestepping Republican efforts to draw them into a fight over Mr. Bush’s leadership on national security heading toward the midterm election. Democrats are rapt spectators, however, shielded by the stern opposition to the president being expressed by three Republicans with impeccable credentials on military matters: Senators John McCain of Arizona, John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The three were joined on Thursday by Colin L. Powell, formerly the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in challenging the administration’s approach.
It is one of those rare Congressional moments when the policy is as monumental as the politics.
On one side are the Republican veterans of the uniformed services, arguing that the president’s proposal would effectively gut the nearly 60-year-old Geneva Conventions, sending a dark signal to the rest of the world and leaving United States military without adequate protection against torture and mistreatment.
On the other are the Bush administration and Republican leaders of both the House and Senate who say new tools are urgently needed to pursue and interrogate terror suspects and to protect the covert operatives who play an increasingly important role in chasing them.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out when the bills go to conference. One would think McCain and company have the upper hand here given the ability of even a strong minority in the Senate to block legislation. If the Democrats are unified on this, having a few Republicans on their side would almost certainly be enough to carry the day outright.
The irony is that, even though it is McCain and a handful of Republicans leading the charge against the president on this, it will likely be a campaign issue used against Democrats. It’ll be rather easy to portray them as soft on the likes of Mohammed Atta, fair or no.
On the merits, I agree with McCain and company, although not necessarily for the reasons they give. It is patently absurd to argue that our terrorist enemies are going to abide by the Geneva Conventions if we do so.
Graham is right that abiding by international law and our living up to our ideals sends the correct message. I’m more skeptical than he is about our ability to persuade Muslims that we’re the good guys, given that their information is filtered through al Jazeera, the mullahs, and others hostile to us. Still, every documented American attrocity fuels the propaganda fire against us with very little offsetting advantage.