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White House, senators bicker over how to try terror suspects

WASHINGTON—President Bush and trio of influential Republican senators appeared headed for a showdown Thursday as they suspended talks on legislation outlining how to try suspected terrorists.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., announced that his panel will meet behind closed doors Thursday to consider legislation that he's sponsoring along with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz. It is opposed by the White House and favored by most Senate Democrats.

Their bill aims to set new rules for military commissions that try detainees; the Bush administration's current approach was invalidated by a June Supreme Court ruling. The administration prefers a competing proposal much like the one the court struck down that's moving through the House of Representatives and is supported by some Senate Republicans.

The biggest point in dispute centers on how to meet U.S. obligations for humane treatment of detainees under the international Geneva Conventions, so that military personnel and intelligence agents who handle detainees will not face potential prosecution for war crimes.

The administration version would give near-blanket legal protection to U.S. officials. The senators insist on setting specific standards governing treatment of detainees to make U.S. law consistent with international law governing treatment of prisoners.

The senators say that the White House proposal gives the impression that the United States is retreating from its treaty commitments, gives the CIA too broad an immunity and sends a message to other nations at war that they can make their own rules.

At an afternoon news conference with Warner and McCain, Graham denounced the White House version in no uncertain terms.

"This whole thing has been just one mess after another," he said. "It started with Abu Ghraib. How many more times do we need to create legislation that's defective, that's going to confuse people, that's got not a snowball's chance in hell of passing Supreme Court muster?" said Graham, a military lawyer.

"Now are we going to start being the first country in the world that changes the Geneva Conventions so the secret police programs of those nations will be OK? I mean, look how that would unravel.

"Every senator and congressman should understand, this is not about November 2006, this is not about your reelection. It's about those who take risks to defend America," said Graham.

Two hours later, in an unusual move that signaled the high stakes at play, intelligence czar John Negroponte held an evening telephone conference call with invited reporters, saying that the senators' legislation would bring his operation to its knees.

"This will not allow for the CIA's high-value terrorist detention program . . . to go forward," Negroponte said. While President Bush said earlier this month that all captives held under the program have been transferred to military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he also made clear that his administration believes the CIA detainee program is essential to the war on terror and they want license to continue it.

He said the senators' bill fails to clarify U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions, which he said have vague standards about "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

"Regrettably, the draft legislation that is before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the moment doesn't offer the kind of clarity and clarification that we believe is necessary with regard to these international obligations of ours," Negroponte said.

A senior intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity said the Bush administration is concerned about protecting CIA interrogators from criminal or civil lawsuits.

"You're putting an additional burden on these people who should be worried about getting critical intelligence to protect America," the official said.

The developments Wednesday followed days of unsuccessful efforts to find middle ground, although both sides have said they thought compromises were within reach on terms of sharing evidence with the accused and on admissibility of hearsay evidence before military tribunals, two early sticking points. Last week top military lawyers, breaking with the administration, said it was imperative defendants hear evidence brought against them.

Warner said he still hopes an agreement can be reached.

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(McClatchy correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this story.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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