BRIAN KNOWLTON / International Herald Tribune / New York Times 21sep2006
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 — President Bush and three Republican senators said this afternoon that they had reached an agreement on legislation to clarify which interrogation techniques can be used against terror suspects and to establish trial procedures for those in military custody.
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“We did our duty,” said Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, one of the three. He noted that the legislation would still need close study by both houses of Congress.
Mr. Warner and the other two rebellious Republicans, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, met at the White House with Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, who stood behind Mr. Warner’s shoulder as the senator announced the agreement.
“It is good news and a good day for the American people,” Mr. Hadley said.
Mr. McCain said the agreement means “that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved.” The senator said the agreement “gives the president the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice.”
But Mr. Hadley added a note of conditionality, calling it a “framework for compromise,” and Mr. Warner said that only President Bush’s signature on the bill would complete the agreement.
Mr. Bush welcomed the accord, which he said met his key test of allowing the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogations of terror suspects to continue.
“I’m pleased to say this agreement preserves the most single, the most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks,” he said, adding, “The agreement clears the way to do what the American people expect us to do — to capture terrorists, to detain terrorists, to question terrorists, and then to try them.”
Mr. Bush urged the Congress to send him legislation before it goes into recess next week before the fall elections.
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said the agreement had two key points. “Classified information will not be shared with the terrorists” tried before the tribunals, he said. And “the very important program of interrogation continues.”
The three senators met today with Mr. Frist, who had been pressing them to find a quick end to an intra-party dispute that awkwardly fell in an election year and on an issue — national security — that the president’s party has sought to make its own.
It was not immediately clear how Democrats — who have largely stood aside while the Republicans feuded — would react to the compromise, a reality that Mr. Frist acknowledged. “We’ve got a lot more to do, and you’ll hear each and every one of us saying that,” he said, forecasting intensive discussions between the parties in the next 48 hours.
The breakthrough came a day after Republicans shepherding the Bush administration plan through the House of Representatives narrowly averted a setback for the proposal — a matter with national security and political ramifications in an election year.
The three senators have contended that the administration was undermining Geneva Convention protections in a way that could leave Americans vulnerable in the future, and that its plan for military tribunals of terror suspects would allow evidence obtained coercively, and information they were not allowed to see to be used against them.
The three had received a high-profile vote of support when Colin L. Powell, Mr. Bush’s first secretary of state, said that the changes backed by the administration could lead the world to “doubt the moral basis” of the American-led fight against terrorism.
Mr. Bush had threatened last week to end C.I.A. interrogations of terror suspects if his proposals were not approved. “Time’s running out,” he said last Friday in emphatic tones.
But over the weekend, in the face of the senators’ unexpectedly stout resistance, administration officials suddenly opened the door to compromise. Intricate negotiations ensued, and the White House reportedly dropped its insistence on redefining American obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
The White House has said that if interrogations are to go forward against suspects it says may possess information that could prevent planned attacks, it needs to clarify the Geneva limits on interrogation techniques.
But its opponents said that the clarification — the administration never said exactly which interrogation procedures it favored — would open the way for other countries with less respect for human rights to interpret the Geneva rules as they see fit.
Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said House Republican leaders continued to oppose providing classified evidence to terror suspects. He said that on at least two occasions, which he did not describe, Osama bin Laden was known to have received classified information that had been presented in American courts.
Earlier, Mr. Hunter predicted that the House would “be able to get a bill very soon,” after it had time to study the new agreement. He said he and fellow Republican representatives would “have some recommendations with respect to classified information.”
The Bush administration has said that it essentially halted C.I.A. interrogations after the Supreme Court ruled in June that an administration plan to try terror suspects before military tribunals fell afoul both of the Geneva Conventions and American law.
The proposed legislation is meant to address the court’s concerns.
David Stout of The New York Times contributed reporting.