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Senate Majority Leader Discusses Tribunals, 2006 Elections

September 14, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, our interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee. It follows one with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid last night. I spoke with Senator Frist earlier this evening from the Capitol.

Senator, welcome.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: Good to be with you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you. So the president is not going to get the military tribunal legislation from the Senate that he wants?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, we’ll wait and see. We had the product that came out of the Armed Services Committee today. There are several very contentious issues in that bill that clearly the president will not agree with, and I think the majority of Republican senators, anyway, will not agree with. So not until we get to the floor will we know what the final product will be coming out of the United States Senate.

JIM LEHRER: There was a suggestion today that you might take the version that the president wants directly to the floor in competition with the one that came out, the Warner-McCain-Graham alternative. Is that correct?

SEN. BILL FRIST: That is correct, and a decision has not been made. We’ll wait and look at both bills. But either way, senators will have the opportunity to express themselves.

I, as majority leader, can take either bill out, the president’s bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the House, their committee, as you well know, or the committee that came out today. Again, the differences are about three or four major differences. There are about 85, maybe 90 percent of the bill are very, very similar, both of those bills.

Redefining the rights of suspects

Sen. Bill Frist
And if a terrorist says, "Well, that's degrading a treatment," are you then all of a sudden going to have broken an international treaty and U.S. law?

JIM LEHRER: Now, one of the major differences has to do with whether or not defendants have access to the testimony and evidence against them, these terrorist suspects. Which version do you -- the president says no. The alternative today says yes. Where do you come down?

SEN. BILL FRIST: That is one of the major issues of disagreement. The president feels strongly that sources and methods, classified information should not necessarily be given to the terrorists themselves. Why? Because typically that information can be shared, either through an attorney or elsewhere, with terrorists around the world.

You are correct in the bill that came out of the Armed Services today that classified information, including sources and methods, will be given to the terrorists in a trial. A fundamental difference, and I, of course, believe strongly that you should not be giving to somebody like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who planned the 9/11 attack, you should be giving him classified information.

JIM LEHRER: So you agree with the president on this?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Another issue has to do with interrogation rules. And where do you come down on that?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, that's the other big area, and a lot of time will be spent on that. It comes down with what's called Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.


SEN. BILL FRIST: And people better get used to hearing that, even though it's very confusing. And there the issue is pretty clear, as well. The president clearly defines what Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention means, and that way an interrogator will know how far they can go, what they can do, what does degrading treatment mean.

Well, the McCain approach or the Armed Services Committee approach leaves that very, very vague. So what does degrading treatment mean? And if a terrorist says, "Well, that's degrading a treatment," are you then all of a sudden going to have broken an international treaty and U.S. law?

So what the president says is, no, we better define that very specifically. And that is a fundamental difference. And I, again, strongly support the plan and proposal put forth by the president.

Voices of dissent

Sen. Bill Frist
[I]f we were to take that approach, that shuts down the program that has been very and will be very useful to protecting the interest of the United States of America

JIM LEHRER: As you probably know, former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a letter to Senator McCain that was released today, and he took the opposite position that you're taking. He supports the McCain approach, and he said the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. Do you agree with that?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I'm not sure. The larger statement, that may well be the case, but I think the implications for an interrogator, for the people who are doing the questioning and getting information, that does affect the safety and security of America, of the people who are listening to us, if they basically say that I in some way can be held responsible because and by a standard that's set out by an international community, because of vagueness or uncertainty of what I can do, we're going to lose our interrogators.

And that's exactly what the president and the administration and the secretary of state, the current secretary of state, and five JAG officers in letters today have said, that the program is going to shut down and we're not going to be able to access information that is very important to the security and the future security of America.

JIM LEHRER: So you reject the argument that also Secretary Powell and Senator McCain, Senator Graham, and Senator Warner say -- and others -- say that if we change the rules under the Geneva Convention, as you just outlined, or interpret it our way, this would put our own troops in jeopardy when they are captured by any enemy force?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, I reject the way you phrase that. And I support what Secretary of State Condi Rice has said, Ambassador Negroponte, who's our chief intelligence officer, General Hayden, who is head of the CIA, all believe, and that is, if the Armed Services bill, put forth by Chairman Warner and McCain and Graham, if we were to take that approach, that shuts down the program that has been very and will be very useful to protecting the interest of the United States of America.

JIM LEHRER: So you're with the president all the way on this?


Sounding a wake-up call

Sen. Bill Frist
It is going to be a wake-up call to the Democrats who basically belittle in many ways this war on terror, who do want to wave this white flag and surrender.

JIM LEHRER: Last night, Senator Reid was on the program, and he said that you pretty much are always with the president. And as a consequence, you've surrendered the power of the United States Senate to President Bush. What do you say to that?

SEN. BILL FRIST: I'd say, "Wake up, Harry Reid. Wake up, Harry Reid." And you can look -- you can look in a number of areas. I do strongly support the president of the United States. I think that he has got it right, that we're not going to do what Harry Reid wants to do, and that is surrender, to wave a white flag, to cut and run at a time when we're being threatened, as we all saw just three or four weeks ago, in a plot from Britain that was going to send 10 airplanes over here.

We just need the Democrats to wake up. And then the next question you'll ask and others will, you know, start giving examples, and one example I give is on stem cells, where clearly I have taken a very different approach than where the president is on that particular bill.

JIM LEHRER: But Senator Reid says that's the only exception.

SEN. BILL FRIST: No. And again, he's trying to oversimplify, because they wanted to go through the one size fits all. I can tell you where our interest is: It's the safety and security of the American people.

It is going to be a wake-up call to the Democrats who basically belittle in many ways this war on terror, who do want to wave this white flag and surrender. And surrender is just simply not a solution, and that's very likely going to play out here over the next several weeks, as we address these bills that you talked about on the floor of the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Let me make sure I understand what you're saying, Senator Frist. You're saying that the Democrats are waving the white flag to the terrorists and are surrendering, that's what they want to do?

SEN. BILL FRIST: I'm saying that, right now, you look -- and we can use the example of Iraq -- when we've taken it to the floor now about eight weeks ago, and if it comes back to the floor again, all, most all Democrats, at least the Democratic leadership, is going to say, "Let's withdraw. Let's get out. Let's cut and run. Let's surrender."

JIM LEHRER: But on the specifics that we've been talking about earlier, John Warner is a Republican. John McCain is a Republican. Lindsay Graham is a Republican. So we're talking about -- these are two different issues, right?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes. No, I thought you were referring to Senator Reid's comments last night.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, well, but he was talking about -- well, all right. But he was talking about the general thing of your going with the president and he says surrendering the power of the third branch of government.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Yes. Well, again, we can go back and look for examples.


SEN. BILL FRIST: If you want to talk about stem cells, we can move to that issue, as well.

Again, this oversimplification of Harry Reid and the Democrats trying to avoid the substance of the issues because we are talking about very important issues. We're talking about -- the bills we were talking about -- security, getting surveillance, getting information, and those are the bills that I'm taking to the floor.

I was just down in Guantanamo Bay last Sunday and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- I didn't see him, but I know he was several blocks away -- and to think that right now we're going to give him classified information in a trial, the man who -- the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks -- to me is just, you know, beyond comprehension.

At stake in the 2006 elections

Sen. Bill Frist
I don't demand what maybe the other side does, and that is that everybody follow us all the time. And right now, Linc Chafee -- I don't know, he probably votes with me 85 percent, maybe 90 percent of the time, maybe 95 percent of the time.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, how important do you think it is that the Republicans maintain control of the Senate in the November elections?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Very important.


SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, because we've got a bold vision of where this country needs to go, whether it's an issue on the issues we're talking about, in terms of security and fighting this war on terror, and not cutting and running in Iraq, whether it's keeping taxes low to make sure we secure the prosperity of America.

The Democrats have said they're going to throw the Bush tax cuts overboard, and that's going to increase the average person listening to me -- a family of four, $62,000 -- that would increase their taxes by 58 percent.

There's a lot at stake in these elections. It's clear where Republican leadership will take us, and it's clear where Democratic leadership would take us.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, are you uncomfortable at all by the way the Republican Party rallied to the side of Senator Linc Chafee in Rhode Island, despite the fact that all the issues that you have named and others, he's usually votes against you and the Republican leadership? And yet you and the others supported him for re-election or re-nomination in the Republican primary.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Very proud of Linc Chafee. He is a colleague who I strongly support.

Listen, I don't demand what maybe the other side does, and that is that everybody follow us all the time. And right now, Linc Chafee -- I don't know, he probably votes with me 85 percent, maybe 90 percent of the time, maybe 95 percent of the time.

He is an honest, strong integrity, strong character. I strongly support. And that's why you saw the Republican Party -- both the leadership, our grassroots, as supported through the RNC -- strongly support him. And hopefully we all contributed a little bit to the victory.

He deserved to win. He is a great United States senator, and we're going to welcome him back.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Reid again last night said that, if there is a Democratic majority in the Senate after November, that the Democrats would use the power of the purse to influence Iraq policy, to change Iraq policy. Is that something people should be concerned about?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, you know, again -- first of all, we're not going to see Democratic leadership, at least not in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. And if we're going to threaten to starve our troops overseas, I'd be very concerned, if that's the implication.

JIM LEHRER: But do you think Iraq policy needs to be changed?

SEN. BILL FRIST: I support both the generals on the ground, the boots on the ground, and I support the direction of the president of the United States.

I do believe that we should not surrender and that Iraq is a part -- a part -- of this larger war on terror, that, again, the United States was threatened by again just four weeks ago with this British plot that unfolded. I think 9/11, the remembrances of 9/11 just a few days ago, brought back the fact that the post-9/11 world means that we are at risk.

And we need to be aggressive; we need to be bold; we need to be aggressive. And that's right where the president is.

JIM LEHRER: I finished the interview with Senator Reid last night asking him how he would characterize his working relationship with you. He said it was good. He said you were a wonderful man, but you always followed the Bush administration, and you've taken away the third branch of government, and that is not good for the country. How do you respond to that?

SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, it sounds like -- I didn't see your interview with him last night, but it sounds like he didn't want to talk about the issues. He didn't want to talk about securing America's homeland, securing America's prosperity, securing America's values. And that's where we're going to stay: It's on the issues.

He can try to lump everybody together and run against everybody and hope that wins elections. The American people are smarter than that. They want to be safe; they want to be secure; they want their children to have the opportunities that they have had and even more. And that's where the Republican focus is.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Frist, thank you very much.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Thank you, Jim.