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House Pushes Through New Detention, Tribunals Rules

September 27, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Interrogating terror suspects. Congress puts its stamp on new rules. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Soon after the Supreme Court struck down the military commissions designed by the Bush administration to prosecute Guantanamo-held terror suspects, the White House, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, and the Congress all began active negotiations to come up with an acceptable, constitutional solution.

One reason the high court derailed the tribunal plan was that the president never asked Congress to approve it.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), House Armed Services Committee Chairman: The Supreme Court did not say that Congress did not have the right to proscribe this new and define this new structure under which we’re going to prosecute terrorists. They said we had the obligation.

KWAME HOLMAN: The details, announced with great fanfare at the Capitol last week, were fashioned into legislation and brought to the floor of the House today. Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings stood to remind that no members of his party were asked or even allowed to contribute to that process.

REP. ALCEE HASTINGS (D), Florida: All of the negotiations were with the administration and with the Republican majority. Go to the record from yesterday’s Rules hearing and you will find that Duncan Hunter, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, said no Democrat was involved in those negotiations.

KWAME HOLMAN: House Republicans, however, nearly were unanimous in support of the key provisions of the new military tribunals bill.

REP. MAC THORNBERRY (R), Texas: I think this is a good bill, but I also believe that it is right up to the edge of tying our own hands or, to change my metaphor, of putting blinders on ourselves, to make it very, very difficult to stop future attacks.

Provisions in the new bill

KWAME HOLMAN: It gives detainees the right to respond to all evidence brought against them, including classified evidence.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: We don't have crime scenes that can be produced, that can be taped off, that can be attended to by dozens of people looking for forensic evidence. We have, in this war against terror, a battlefield situation.

KWAME HOLMAN: It commits the United States to abide by provisions of the Geneva Conventions but allows the president to determine their meaning and application.

REP. TOM COLE (R), Oklahoma: These terrorists are not in uniform. They're not under the supervision of legitimate governments. They don't recognize the Geneva Convention. They don't extend to the prisoners that they take of all faiths, of all nationalities, any rights, any privileges, any protections whatsoever.

KWAME HOLMAN: It allows the United States to continue vigorous interrogation techniques of detainees and protects U.S. agents from prosecution for past interrogation actions.

REP. CANDICE MILLER (R), Michigan: We need to give our professional interrogators clear direction and clear law because, right now, if you can believe it, they are actually faced with the prospect of buying liability insurance so they don't get sued as war criminals in a federal court.

Democrats' view of shortcomings

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats talked about where the bill falls short.

REP. JANE HARMAN (D), California: There is a carve-out for the CIA. The bill would permit the CIA to continue a separate program for interrogation that does not comply with the Army Field Manual. If such a program is needed, then Congress must insist that it has strict limits and that we have the tools to do strict oversight.

REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), New York: This bill says to potential terrorists, "The U.S. is surrendering the moral high ground, it is unilaterally relaxing the Geneva Conventions, that we are willing to keep people locked up indefinitely without a trial." And since I believe in executing people found guilty of perpetrating or planning a genocide on the American people, I want to make sure we're executing the right terrorists.

KWAME HOLMAN: One major objection of Democrats is the lack of a habeas corpus provision in the bill, giving detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in court.

REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), Massachusetts: And it is a terrible thing to contemplate that this bill will allow people to be locked up indefinitely with no chance to prove that they were locked up in error. We should not do it.

KWAME HOLMAN: And there was confusion as to whether a U.S. citizen could be labeled an "unlawful combatant," as described in the bill, and therefore be subject to prosecution under its provisions.

REP. STEVE BUYER (R), Indiana: And to the gentleman when you say that this is going to apply to everyone or all American citizens, that is completely false. I want the gentleman to know that.

REP. DAVID WU (D), Oregon: I'd like to respond to the two chairman's remarks that I was incorrect in my analysis of the law or of the proposed bill. I stand by that analysis.

The debate

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate operates under different rules from the House.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: I look forward over the next few hours to an open and civilized debate.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, Majority Leader Bill Frist brought the military tribunal bill to the floor this afternoon only after he reached agreement with Minority Leader Harry Reid to allow votes on several Democratic amendments.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: While the bill before us is a modest improvement over the language originally proposed by the administration, it has adopted far too many provisions from the administration bill.

KWAME HOLMAN: And so, through this evening and perhaps into tomorrow, senators will debate possible changes to provisions dealing with interrogation, congressional oversight of it, and habeas corpus. Any changes would have to be reconciled with the House, which this afternoon approved the unamended version of the military tribunal's bill with the support of 34 Democrats.