The House on Wednesday approved administration-backed rules for interrogating and trying terrorism suspects, a key component of the national security agenda that Republicans aim to showcase in their fight to hold onto Congress.
The Senate is expected to follow suit today, making passage of the military tribunal bill one of Congress’ final acts before lawmakers recess this weekend to hit the campaign trail. Barring complications, the legislation will reach President Bush’s desk for a high-profile signing ceremony in the run-up to the November elections.
The measure, approved by the House 253 to 168, would preserve tough interrogation tactics that the White House has credited with helping thwart terrorist plots. It also would pave the way for trials of at least two dozen terrorism suspects, including self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who are being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We must remember that we are fighting a different kind of enemy -- and a different kind of war,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said as the chamber opened debate on the measure Wednesday. “To win this war, we must provide our military, intelligence and law enforcement communities the tools they need to keep us safe.”
But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, objected that the measure would be “used by our terrorist enemies as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to proclamations of human rights.”
The bill is one of several that GOP lawmakers have rushed to pass to spotlight an issue they consider their party’s strength: national security. Another measure, authorizing Bush’s once secret warrantless surveillance program, is unlikely to clear Congress until after the election.
Final action on the tribunal bill will bring to a close the wrangling that began in June, when the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s earlier rules for trying terrorism suspects before military commissions. The legislation didn’t fall into place until the White House and a group of Senate Republicans worked out a compromise last week.
As passed by the House, the measure would allow the administration to use interrogation methods tougher than those employed by the military; it does not specify precisely what would be permitted or explicitly banned.
Water boarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he is going to drown, would be banned, according to those who helped broker the deal. Some human rights advocates said the language of the bill would ban sleep deprivation and exposing detainees to extreme temperatures.
The approval came despite warnings from human rights groups that provisions such as prohibiting detainees from challenging their imprisonment in court and permitting the use of coerced evidence in trials under certain circumstances put the bill on questionable legal footing.
A bipartisan effort led by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to strip out the provision preventing detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions -- demands for legal justification for their imprisonment -- is expected to come before the Senate today.
If that amendment passes, the overall bill would have to go to a House-Senate conference committee, which would delay its passage.
Previewing GOP plans to use the tribunal measure in the campaign, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) challenged Democrats on Wednesday to vote against it. “Will my Democrat friends work with Republicans to give the president the tools he needs to continue to stop terrorist attacks before they happen -- or will they again vote to force him to fight the terrorists with one arm tied behind his back?” he asked.
Thirty-four Democrats joined 219 Republicans in voting for the bill, while 160 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent voted against it.
California House members voted along party lines, with all Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it. Reps. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) did not vote.
“Let me be very clear. I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for the planners and perpetrators of 9/11,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo). But, she said, the bill would “do nothing but put us in further legal limbo.”
“This bill is practically begging to be overturned by the court,” added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Democrats accused Republicans of rushing to pass a legally suspect bill to score political points. Within an hour of the vote, the House GOP leadership put out a statement accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement after the vote accusing Democrats of voting in favor of “more rights for terrorists.”
“So the same terrorists who plan to harm innocent Americans and their freedom worldwide would be coddled, if we followed the Democrat plan,” he said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed confidence that the bill would withstand court challenge. He also disputed contentions that detainees weren’t being given enough rights.
Once trials begin, Americans can “watch all those rights being accorded to people who designed the attack against the United States and decide whether or not they agree with the Democrats that there weren’t enough rights given to the defendants,” Hunter said. “My instincts are that they will probably ... come to the conclusion that
The measure that passed the House is the product of a compromise between the White House and a group of Senate Republicans led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former POW who was tortured in Vietnam and who advocates that the United States must adhere to the Geneva Convention in its treatment of terrorism suspects.
But Jumana Musa, an advocacy director of Amnesty International, said Wednesday that the administration has a track record of interpreting congressional laws creatively and permissively. Under the compromise, she said, there was no way to ensure that the CIA would treat its detainees humanely.
“This bill doesn’t say what techniques are prohibited,” Musa said. “That is the problem with a system that has no check and an administration with a long and colorful record of broad interpretations of the law.”
The measure would define as illegal under the War Crimes Act “grave breaches” of the Geneva Convention, such as torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and intentionally causing “serious bodily injury.”
It also would give the president authority to interpret the Geneva Convention by an executive order made public and subject to congressional review. The order will not list specific techniques, and no one knows for sure what exactly the order will say.
Said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch:
“I don’t think that the CIA will be comfortable going back to those [tougher interrogation] techniques if McCain, the chief architect of the compromise, believes those techniques are against the law.”
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Proposed tribunal system
Here are the highlights of a bill passed, 253-168, by the House of Representatives establishing military tribunals to try terrorism suspects. The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation today.
* Outlines specific war crimes, including torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, murder, mutilation or maiming, rape, and biological experiments.
* Does not include a provision sought by President Bush reinterpreting U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention. But allows the president to “interpret the meaning and application” of Convention standards to authorize methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts.
* Establishes a military commission system to prosecute detainees.
* Sponsors say the commissions would not be used to prosecute U.S. citizens, although the assertion is in dispute.
* The commission can determine the punishment, including death.
* Requires a defendant be allowed to respond to any evidence given to a jury. If classified information is needed for prosecution, an unclassified summary can be provided.
* When the government wants to protect classified information and an unclassified substitute is not available, the government could opt to drop the charges, but is not required to release the suspect.
* Defendants could be convicted on hearsay evidence if a judge finds it to be reliable.
* Coerced testimony would be allowed in narrow circumstances, generally if the statement was acquired before a 2005 ban on cruel or degrading treatment and a judge finds it to be reliable.
* Bars defendants from protesting their detention or treatment in civilian U.S. courts.
Source: Associated Press