WASHINGTON—Ignoring threats and warnings from President Bush, a defiant Senate committee approved legislation Thursday that would ban abusive CIA interrogations and make it easier for terrorist suspects to defend themselves at trial.
The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee voted 15-9 to send the legislation to the full Senate. Four Republicans, including Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the committee's chairman, backed the bill over Bush's objections, as did the panel's 11 Democrats.
The split in Republican ranks widened as former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the dissidents against his former boss.
"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has teamed up with Warner and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in opposing Bush. Powell is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Warner is a former secretary of the Navy. Graham is a judge in the Air Force reserves.
Bush made a rare visit to the Capitol to lobby House Republicans for his approach and declared that "the American people will be in danger" if lawmakers continue to defy him.
Bush said CIA interrogators should have wide latitude when questioning terrorists, as long as they don't engage in torture. The Senate bill would ban abusive techniques that the Bush administration doesn't consider torture, such as "water-boarding," which simulates drowning.
"In order to protect this country, we must be able to interrogate people who have information about terrorist attacks," Bush told reporters after his closed-door visit with House Republicans. "I will resist any bill that does not enable this program to go forward with legal clarity."
Powell endorsed efforts by three Senate Republicans to make sure that suspected terrorists receive basic protections provided by the Geneva Conventions, an international agreement governing the treatment of prisoners of war. The basic protections, spelled out in a provision known as Common Article 3, prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity," including "humiliating and degrading treatment."
Powell agreed with other retired senior military officers who wrote Warner contending that Bush's approach undermines support for the war on terrorism and encourages abusive treatment against captured Americans.
The legislation under debate would revamp the ground rules for dealing with terrorist suspects, from interrogation to detention to trial before military tribunals. Some of the most controversial issues involve the treatment of detainees in secret CIA prisons.
The legislation also would change the rules of evidence for suspected terrorists facing trial before military tribunals. The Senate committee bill would make it easier for defendants to see the evidence against them and would tighten restrictions on the use of hearsay evidence.
Terrorist suspects would have fewer legal rights than Americans in civilian courts, but would have more than what Bush wants to give them.
Although the military has banned a long list of abusive interrogation tactics, the prohibitions don't apply to the CIA. Bush wants Congress to give CIA interrogators wide latitude while protecting them from possible later prosecution for actions that might be considered war crimes.
The issue took on new urgency last June when the Supreme Court ruled that terrorist suspects are entitled to basic protections under the Geneva Conventions.
"If there's not clarity, if there's ambiguity, if there's any doubt in our professionals' minds that they can conduct their operations in a legal way, with support of the Congress, the program won't go forward and the American people will be in danger," Bush said.
Bush brushed off Powell's opposition, but White House spokesman Tony Snow didn't conceal the annoyance that his defection caused within the president's inner circle. Snow said Powell was "confused" about Bush's goals and suggested that the former secretary of state should have contacted the White House for clarification before writing his letter.
Snow insisted that Bush merely wants to clarify the standards of conduct under the Geneva Conventions, not water down the basic protections provided to captives.
McCain, who was tortured as a war prisoner in Vietnam, took issue with Snow's interpretation.
"Clarify, modify, I mean please," he said with exasperation. "You are changing a treaty which no other nation on Earth has changed for the first time in 57 years."
The Arizona Republican also accused CIA Director Michael Hayden of trying to shield his agency from scrutiny under the guise of national security.
"General Hayden wants to change the Geneva Conventions not to protect his people," McCain said after the committee vote. "He wants to protect his reputation at the risk of America's reputation."
The White House sought to counter Powell's opposition by producing a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supporting Bush. The White House also released another letter of support from five top military lawyers representing the armed services.
Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee reacted skeptically to the military lawyers' letter, suggesting that it didn't fully reflect the views of the lawyers who signed it.
"There's more to it," said Graham, who contacted the military lawyers after reading their joint letter. "The concerns I've been expressing for weeks, they share. ...That needs to come out, too. You can't use the letter in a vacuum."
A person close to the military lawyers, who insisted on anonymity because he was unauthorized to challenge the White House, confirmed Graham's account.
"It (the lawyers' letter) doesn't say they are recommending that the president's legislation pass," this person said. "It's just saying they don't object. I believe that if we were asked our preference, we would say we prefer the bill that Senators McCain, Warner and Graham have put forward."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he would decide next week whether he would permit a vote on the dissidents' bill or substitute a White House-backed alternative. Lawmakers are under pressure to finish the legislation before their planned Oct. 6 recess for the fall election season. The Republican infighting is undermining Bush's effort to portray Democrats as soft on national security heading into the elections.
(James Rosen contributed to this story.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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