WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House and rebellious Senate Republicans announced agreement Thursday on rules for the interrogation and trial of suspects in the war on terror. President George W. Bush urged Congress to put it into law before adjourning for the midterm elections.
“I’m pleased to say that this agreement preserves the single most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks,” the president said, shortly after administration officials and key lawmakers announced agreement following a week of high-profile intraparty disagreement.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of three GOP lawmakers who told Bush he couldn’t have the legislation the way he initially asked for it, said, “The agreement that we’ve entered into gives the president the tools he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice.”
“There’s no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved,” McCain said, referring to the international treaties covering the treatment of prisoners in wartime.
The central sticking point had been a demand from McCain, Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that there be no attempt to redefine U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
The agreement contains key concessions by the White House, including dropping a provision that would have interpreted Geneva Convention obligations and another allowing a defendant to be convicted on evidence he never sees if it is classified. The legislation, however, makes clear the president has the authority to enforce the treaty.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has said the agency needed to be confident that its interrogation program for high-value terror suspects is legal.
“Much remains in the legislative process,” he said in a written statement to the agency personnel. But “if this language becomes law, the Congress will have given us the clarity and the support that we need to move forward with a detention and interrogation program that allows us to continue to defend the homeland, attack al-Qaida and protect American and allied lives.”
Added Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, on CIA interrogations: “The good news is the program will go forward.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who opposed such a measure, indicated he was not satisfied with the piece on classified information: “We’re going to look at it closely. And we have some recommendations with respect to classified information.”
Hadley said the bar would be “very high” and that classified information would not be automatically shared with terrorists.
“Our view is we think it’s a good approach because the likelihood of that occurring would be very remote,” Hadley said.
Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wouldn’t consider the agreement sealed until Bush signed on.
That happened within an hour, when the president stepped before microphones in Orlando, Fla., where he was campaigning for Republican candidates in the fall.
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,” he said.
The accord was sealed in a 90-minute session in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had earlier in the day told Warner, McCain and Graham it was time to close the deal. The four lawmakers were joined by Hadley, as well as other administration officials, for the final session.
If it survives scrutiny, the accord would fulfill a Republican political and legislative imperative – pre-election party unity on an issue related to the war on terror, and possible enactment of one of Bush’s top remaining priorities of the year.
The evident compromise came less than a week after Bush emphatically warned lawmakers at a news conference he would shut down the interrogation of terror suspects unless legislation was sent to his desk. “Time’s running out,” he said.