Friday, July 14, 2006

White House wants law limiting detainee rights

White House wants law limiting detainee rights
By Kate Zernike
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: July 13, 2006

WASHINGTON A day after saying that terrorism suspects have a right to protections under the Geneva conventions, the Bush administration said that it wanted Congress to pass legislation that would limit the rights granted to detainees.
The earlier statement had been widely interpreted as a retreat, but testimony to Congress by administration lawyers Wednesday made clear that the picture was more complicated.

The administration has now abandoned its four-year-old claim that members of Al Qaeda are not protected under the Geneva conventions, acknowledging that a Supreme Court ruling has established as a matter of law that they are protected. Still, administration lawyers asked Congress to pass legislation that would narrowly define the rights granted under a provision of the conventions.

The debate now under way was prompted by the Supreme Court decision two weeks ago that struck down the military tribunals the Bush administration had established for terrorism suspect in U.S. military custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The court left it to Congress to decide what kind of trials to set up for detainees, and what protections should be granted them in interrogations and detention before trial.

Administration lawyers have said that the "most desirable" solution would be for Congress to pass a law approving the administration-supported tribunals, proceedings that would grant minimum rights to detainees.

But some leading senators said they believed that the White House stance might still be evolving, despite the public pronouncements by the lawyers who appeared before Congress.

In particular, they said they thought the administration might be open to abandoning the earlier tribunal approach in favor of one that takes the existing court-martial procedures and modifies them to reflect the complications of trying terrorism suspects.

"I wouldn't say that testimony would set the final parameters of where the administration will go on this," said Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Committee was conducting hearings on the issue on Thursday.

[Warner and another Republican senator, John McCain, said Thursday at the beginning of the committee hearing that senior Bush administration officials had agreed to back legislation that would allow for prosecuting suspects under a court system based on the military's code of justice, The Associated Press reported from Washington.

[McCain and Warner cited recent meetings with Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, and other top administration officials. The measure supported by the White House would extend more rights and protections to defendants than the military commissions established by the Pentagon.]

At the center of the debate is a provision of the Geneva conventions known as Common Article 3, which guarantees legal rights "recognized as indispensable by civilized people," and prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."
In recent testimony to Congress, administration lawyers said that the article was too vague, and that because breaching Common Article 3 is a violation of the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996, applying the protection to detainees could lead to U.S. troops being charged with felony crimes for using some interrogation tactics.

"Congress needs to do something to bring clarity and certainty to Common Article 3," Steven Bradbury, an acting assistant attorney general, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Administration lawyers said that the White House announcement Tuesday night was not a shift, but an announcement and an interpretation of the court's decision.

In an interview, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he agreed. "I think what they're saying is, until we get further direction were going to do the following," he said. "That doesn't preclude them or us from giving definition."
In a week of hearings on Capitol Hill, administration lawyers have said that the best way to bring the detainees to trial following the court's ruling is for Congress to approve legislation establishing the military commissions that the court struck down. Daniel Dell'Orto, a Pentagon deputy general counsel, described this as "minor tweaking."

But several scholars and military lawyers have said that the best way to meet the court's requirements on providing rights to detainees is to start with the court-martial procedure set up in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and modify that.
Several lawmakers have said that only a solution that extends Geneva protections to detainees would survive another court challenge.

Mark Mazzetti and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting for this article.


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