WASHINGTON—Several Democrats and civil rights advocates charged Friday that a Republican compromise over the treatment of terrorism suspects leaves the door open for torture and abuse, while stripping captives of a basic right to a court appeal.
"This is a bill that's essentially going to continue to allow coercive interrogations," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented about 500 detainees, many of them held for more than four years at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "I find it just shameful as a human rights lawyer who's spent my life suing every dictator in the world over this kind of stuff."
But leading Democrats stopped short of opposing the compromise plan announced Thursday between the White House and Senate Republicans. The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, called the compromise "promising."
The House of Representatives and Senate are expected to vote next week before the Congress recesses for elections.
Circling their wagons, Republicans all but dared Democrats to vote against the plan, suggesting that would turn off voters and kill the Democrats' efforts to take back control of either chamber of Congress in the November elections.
"I don't think sitting on the sidelines in the war on terrorism is a good idea," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "My advice to the Democrats would be to support us—that would be a great way to take that issue off the table."
Congress has been under pressure to pass a comprehensive detainee plan since the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in June that the system President Bush created to handle terrorism cases violated U.S. law.
Bush previously took the position that the international Geneva Conventions of 1949, protecting prisoners of war, didn't cover so-called "enemy combatants" seized in the war on terrorism, enabling the CIA to use aggressive interrogation techniques that are widely considered tantamount to torture.
The compromise bill seeks to immunize interrogators from prosecution for those tactics prior to the end of 2005, while limiting their use going forward. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that "would put our own troops at risk if other countries decide to apply a similar standard."
Critics of the compromise praised Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia for forcing the White House to rethink some of what it wanted from Congress, such as changing the wording of U.S. obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and convicting detainees without letting them see key evidence against them.
Still, critics said the administration got too much.
The compromise defines nine "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions as felony war crimes and rules out techniques that could cause serious mental or physical pain. But it gives the president, not Congress, the authority to decide what gray-area techniques should be allowed and how violations should be punished.
The ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson called the compromise a "get-out-of jail-free card to the administration's top torture officials."
Critics also expressed doubts that a required executive order from the president will clearly define the new boundaries of interrogations.
"The key to this deal will be whether Congress exercises real oversight over the CIA interrogation program," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She said the White House should agree to give the intelligence panels a description of the techniques it wants to authorize, legal justifications and evidence that the techniques are necessary and effective. "Congress cannot and must not rubber-stamp another executive-branch intelligence program without adequate oversight," she said.
Ratner said the bill appears to allow CIA interrogators to continue leaving scantily clad detainees in cold rooms, forcing them to stand in stressful positions or denying them sleep for prolonged periods—possibly all at once. "I would hope they will come out and say that's not allowed," he said. "Right now, this bill is full of holes."
The measure, he noted, does nothing to bar renditions, in which the CIA or another agency transfers custody of a detainee to a foreign government, where the detainee could be tortured outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Senators who negotiated the bill said they believe it would bar the use of simulated drowning, known as "water-boarding," a tactic reportedly used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The compromise introduced into legislation on Friday would affect the handling of 469 detainees held at Guantanamo—including Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other "high-value" figures moved this month from secret CIA prisons overseas—and all future captives.
The legislation also limits detainees from appealing in federal court to challenge their detentions—a right that dates to the Magna Carta in the year 1215. Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., of the Senate Judiciary Committee has voiced concerns and scheduled a hearing Monday to explore that issue.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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