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House, Senate Committees Pass Opposing Tribunals Plans

September 14, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush traveled to Capitol Hill today for a visit that was part lobbying trip, part rescue mission. His proposals to establish military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees and other suspected terrorists and guidelines for their treatment are on the ropes.

They’ve been embraced by House Republicans but are being challenged openly by key Republicans in the Senate. The president spoke this morning after a meeting that included only Republicans from the House.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I reminded them that the most important job of government is to protect the homeland, and yesterday they advanced an important piece of legislation to do just that.

KWAME HOLMAN: That legislation came from the House Armed Services Committee, where 52 of 60 members approved a bill that mirrors what the president has proposed. It would mandate military commissions much like those the president installed after 9/11 but which were struck down by the Supreme Court in June.

Testimony against detainees obtained using coercive methods would be permissible in court and so would classified evidence that the accused never would get to see. The bill also would redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment, so as to give American military personnel more flexibility during interrogations.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter said U.S. troops also would be shielded from prosecution for their interrogation tactics unless their acts went too far.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), House Armed Services Chairman: It has to be treatment that, under our case law, shocks the conscience. That is, it has to be a real crime.

Alternative proposals

KWAME HOLMAN: But Hunter's counterpart in the Senate, Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, has crafted an alternative proposal with colleagues John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Theirs would not allow the use of coerced testimony or permit secret evidence.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: I recognize fully that there are honest differences of opinion with respect to very complicated legal issues.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Warner argues the House bill, like the president's proposal, would lower the standard for the treatment of detainees, putting U.S. troops at risk should other countries retaliate.

The president's former secretary of state, Colin Powell, echoed that sentiment in a letter sent to McCain and released today. He wrote, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." Redefining Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions "would add to those doubts."

Asked about the letter at the White House this afternoon, Mr. Bush responded that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions must be altered so that interrogators can adequately reap information from terrorists.

GEORGE W. BUSH: If there's ambiguity, if there's any doubt in our professionals' mind that they can conduct their operations in a legal way with support of the Congress, the program won't go forward and the American people will be endangered.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Senator Warner pushed through his proposal on military tribunals with support from all committee Democrats, despite the concerns of several conservative Republicans. Alabama's Jeff Sessions said the debate over Article 3 already was having a negative impact on American intelligence personnel.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: We have agents around the world that are getting nervous and frustrated. They are there because we sent them. Many of them are at great risk, and they're now beginning to wonder if their service to the country could actually lead to them being charged or sued and buying insurance and that kind of thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: The battle now shifts to the floors of the Senate and House. Both chambers would have to reach agreement to get a bill to President Bush before they adjourn at the end of the month.