The deal virtually assures Bush will get a new law within the coming days that will institutionalize some of the ad hoc procedures the U.S. administration adopted in pursuing the war on terrorism since September 11, 2001.
The June Setback
The administration’s use of controversial or poorly defined procedures was called to a halt by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
The court ruled the administration did not have authority by itself to try suspects by military tribunal and demanded Bush go to Congress to get legislation clearly defining the rules for handling terrorism suspects.
However, Bush’s initial proposal -- which showed little change from the administration’s previous practices -- ran into resistance in Congress last week. The resistance came from some influential lawmakers in Bush’s own party as well as in the opposition Democratic Party, effectively assuring that Bush’s original proposal could not pass.
The Republican rebels were joined by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in objecting that the initial proposal did not adequately reflect American and international legal standards. They worried that any erosion of standards might encourage other countries to mistreat American soldiers captured in future wars.
Now, a compromise announced on September 21 appears to have satisfied both sides of the Republican divide.
Senator John McCain (Arizona), one of the leaders of the recalcitrant Republicans, said on September 21 the compromise proposal assures that the United States fully adheres to the Geneva Conventions.
"There is no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved," McCain said.
But McCain, who himself spent five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said the new proposal also allows Washington aggressively to pursue terrorist networks.
"The agreement that we've entered into gives the president the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice," McCain said.
Under the deal, Congress will clearly define the rules governing interrogation of terrorism suspects by assuring domestic laws more closely conform to the Geneva Conventions.
Specifically, the legislature will outlaw in the War Crimes Act -- a U.S. domestic law -- practices that would constitute “grave breaches” to the Geneva Conventions. These include torture and certain forms of assault and mental stress.
Another Republican senator who had opposed Bush’s initial proposal to Congress, Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), said “grave breaches” would include one of the most controversial interrogation techniques known as “water boarding," the simulated drowning of a suspect.
However, the compromise continues to permit the CIA to conduct interrogations and leaves it to the executive branch -- that is, the branch of government led by the president’s administration -- to establish which practices falling short of a “grave breach” do -- or don’t -- violate the Geneva Conventions.
Bush said on September 21 that “this agreement preserves the single most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world’s most dangerous terrorists.”
New Rules For Military Tribunals
The deal also spells out how suspects should be put on trial and permits the resumption of special military courts.
But in a break from the administration’s past procedures, the new bill would allow defendants to see any evidence the jury sees and hearsay evidence would be excluded from the trial if the defense successfully argues it is not reliable.
However, the military commissions will reserve the right to remove from evidence presented to the court any sensitive details that are considered pertinent to planning new attacks.
The administration now hopes to see the new proposal successfully pushed through Congress in the remaining days of this month, before many legislators leave Washington to campaign for November mid-term elections.