WASHINGTON—The White House and dissident Republican senators reached an agreement Thursday that would allow the CIA's controversial terrorist interrogation program to continue and trials of suspected Islamic terrorists to begin but preserve the Geneva Conventions' prohibitions against mistreating wartime prisoners.
President Bush began asking Congress for new authority to question and try suspected terrorists after the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in June that his plan for special military tribunals violated both U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.
If it's approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives before the end of next week, when Congress is set to recess, Thursday's agreement also could end a weeks-long intra-party rift and unite Republicans around their core national security message as they head into crucial midterm elections.
Final passage of the compromise is likely, but hurdles remain. Most Democrats and Republicans didn't yet know the terms of the agreement Thursday, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said he had some concerns about detainees gaining too much access to classified information. The White House and CIA voiced no such concerns, however.
President Bush, speaking from a Republican fund-raiser in Orlando, Fla., said the accord "preserves the . . . most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets."
CIA Director Michael Hayden told his staff in a memo that the agreement would give his operatives "the clarity and the support that we need to move forward . . . ."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of three Republican senators who forced the administration to compromise, said he was satisfied with the agreement.
"There is no doubt that the integrity and sprit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved," he said at a news conference with other senators and administration officials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who'd joined McCain and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., in forcing the White House to temper its original proposal, said he believed the compromise would prohibit simulated drowning, or "water-boarding" as a CIA interrogation technique.
But Graham didn't rule out other aggressive techniques such as sleep deprivation or playing loud music. He said the legislation wouldn't spell out which "alternative interrogation techniques" are permitted and which are prohibited.
Specifics were sketchy, as negotiators didn't immediately release details in writing.
As outlined by lawmakers and administration officials, the deal provides CIA interrogators with protection, retroactive to 2001, against being prosecuted as war criminals for most interrogation methods on high-value detainees.
But the administration appeared to bow to demands from McCain, Graham and Warner, who'd voiced concerns raised by dozens of current and former high ranking military and diplomatic officials, including five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Republican Secretaries of State Colin Powell and George Shultz.
The administration had sought to more narrowly define the U.S. obligations under Common Article 3 of the international Geneva Conventions of 1949, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. Critics said that Bush's approach could allow interrogation tactics too close to torture, invite other nations to back out of their treaty obligations and possibly lead to torture of U.S. soldiers in future wars. They also said it would damage the nation's international reputation by lowering the moral standards America observes in war.
Under the compromise, the administration would agree not to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the U.S. War Crimes Act would be revised to define "grave breaches" of Common Article 3, including murder, torture, biological experiments, rape and other acts.
The CIA would be instructed that it must abide by the Detainee Treatment Act, which was championed last year by McCain and rules out degrading treatment of detainees. But Congress would give the executive branch the power to define a lower category of mid-range felonies under the War Crimes Act.
The administration appeared to accept the senators' demand that classified information couldn't be used to convict a detainee unless the detainee was given at least a sense of what information was being used against him. The sources and methods of U.S. intelligence would be protected.
The senators also appeared to get most of what they wanted in terms of allowing a judge to throw out evidence that appeared to have been gleaned in violation of humane treatment standards.
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, urged lawmakers to reject the deal, saying it didn't protect due process and was "a compromise of America's commitment to the rule of law."
"The proposal . . . deliberately provides a `get out of jail free card' to the administration's top torture officials, " Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a written statement. ". . .The president would have the authority to declare what is—and what is not—a grave breach of the War Crimes Act, making the president his own judge and jury. . . . These are tactics expected of repressive regimes, not the American government."
But one prominent independent human-rights group hailed the deal.
"Today's agreement makes clear that the president cannot unilaterally downgrade the humane treatment standards of the Geneva Conventions," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington Director of Human Rights First, in a prepared statement. "The administration failed in its attempt to get around the prohibitions against torture and cruelty by arguing that the standards are `flexible.' "
In addition, Massimino said, the agreement "makes clear that `alternative interrogation procedures,' such as stress positions, induced hypothermia and water-boarding are not only prohibited by the treaty, they are war crimes."
However, she added, "concerns remain," including whether the administration's interpretation of the Geneva standards comports with the law, and whether alleged abuses in secret CIA prisons will ever be aired in courts.
Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Association of Military Justice, which serves as a watchdog over military prosecutions, said details of the deal were too scant to render an analysis. He sharply criticized the closed-door negotiations, saying the terms should have been the subject of public Senate hearings.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents William Douglas, Greg Gordon and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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