Bush Fires Back at Republican Rebels

Times Staff Writers

President Bush on Friday toughened his stand against rebellious senators in his own party who want to stop his proposal for harsh interrogation of terrorism detainees, warning that the outcome of the debate “really is going to define whether or not we can protect ourselves.”

At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, the president, in animated and unusually forceful language, urged members of Congress to approve his plan for interrogating detainees and trying them before military commissions. He said an intelligence program that had obtained valuable information from terrorists could not continue without the legislation.

Four GOP senators, three of whom have long experience in the military, provided the crucial votes Thursday that blocked Bush’s proposal in the Senate Armed Services Committee.


“Congress has got a decision to make: Do you want the program to go forward, or not?” Bush said. “I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America.”

He warned that “time’s running out” for Congress to pass his plan before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November elections.

Bush’s pointed declarations underscored the gap between the White House and the rebelling Republican senators at a time when the GOP hoped to enter the fall election season with a unified position on national security. In particular, Bush’s comments emphasized his differences with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam prisoner of war and likely candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, who has opposed Bush’s interrogation policy in the past as overly harsh.

McCain and Republicans siding with him said the president’s interrogation plan could backfire by prompting other nations to use extreme tactics against captured Americans. “This puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars,” McCain said in a statement Friday.

McCain was Bush’s principal opponent in the 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination, but in 2004, the two patched up the political issues that had divided them. Still, McCain is working hard to woo the conservative voters who form the core of Bush’s political base, and he may risk alienating those voters by straying from Bush’s national security policies.

At the center of the dispute is the interpretation of a key section of the Geneva Convention, which sets international standards of treatment for wartime prisoners. Known as Common Article 3, the section bans “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

Bush says that this language is vague and that the lack of clarity has left intelligence agents in doubt about whether their interrogation tactics are legal. “What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity’? That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation,” he said Friday. He wants Congress to define the language.

But McCain and the senators siding with him say Congress should not unilaterally set a definition, or else other nations with less respect for human rights will do the same, potentially harming U.S. personnel. Weakening the international law “risks our reputation, our moral standing and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country,” McCain said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said: “What is being billed as ‘clarifying’ our treaty obligations will be seen as ‘withdrawing’ from the treaty obligations. It will set precedent which could come back to haunt us.”

The Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved an alternative to Bush’s approach, with support from McCain, Graham and Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), as well as from the panel’s Democrats. Without reinterpreting the Geneva Convention, McCain said, the alternative bill lists specific actions by U.S. intelligence officers that would constitute war crimes, while protecting CIA agents from being sued for performing their duty within the law.

McCain’s status as a former Navy pilot and survivor of torture in Vietnam gives him significant clout on the matter. Graham is a former Air Force Reserve judge, and Warner is a former Navy secretary.

Also backing the Republican dissidents is Colin L. Powell, Bush’s former secretary of State, who is also a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell, in a letter to McCain opposing Bush’s approach, issued a broad caution that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”

Asked whether Powell’s letter suggested that Americans were wondering whether the president’s strategy was flawed, Bush responded: “If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorists’ tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic.”

The brewing showdown over the legislation is likely to produce aggressive lobbying for votes and procedural maneuvering as the issue moves to the full Senate. But even amid Bush’s urgings, an additional Republican senator, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, said she would support the McCain-backed measure.

As Republicans feuded, Democrats remained largely silent on the debate, except to criticize the president.

“When conservative military men like John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell stand up to the president, it shows how wrong and isolated the White House is,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “These military men are telling the president that in the war on terror you need to be both strong and smart, and it is about time he heeded their admonitions.”

The White House and top Republican strategists have made no secret of their intention to use the terrorism issue to rouse the GOP base and paint Democrats as inadequate to the task of protecting the nation, in hopes of retaining majorities in the House and Senate.

Bush is now striking a similar contrast with McCain and other Republican critics.

On Friday, McCain strategist John Weaver sought to deemphasize their differences. “It’s not contentious. It’s not angry,” he said. “It’s just a difference of opinion.”

Weaver said the dispute was not likely to last, even if the White House used it for the November elections. And he contended that McCain, given his history in Vietnam, need not worry that anyone might successfully challenge his national security credentials.

The president’s one-hour news conference dealt almost exclusively with issues related to terrorism and Iraq.

Bush gingerly distanced himself from House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said this week that he wondered whether Democrats were “more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.”

“I wouldn’t have exactly put it that way,” Bush said. “But I do believe there’s a difference of attitude” between the two major parties.

Bush said his administration remained committed to tracking down Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. “There is a kind of an urban myth here in Washington about how this administration hasn’t stayed focused on Osama bin Laden. Forget it,” he said.


Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Julian Barnes contributed to this report.