House OKs rules regarding detainees
The House approved an administration-backed system of questioning and prosecuting terrorism suspects Wednesday, setting clearer limits on...
WASHINGTON — The House approved an administration-backed system of questioning and prosecuting terrorism suspects Wednesday, setting clearer limits on CIA interrogation techniques but denying access to courts for detainees seeking to contest their imprisonment.
The 253-168 vote was a victory for President Bush, who had yielded ground during negotiations but fully embraced language approved by the House with support from 34 Democrats and all but seven Republicans. All Washington state Republicans voted for the bill; Democrats opposed it.
The Senate also began debating the measure Wednesday and defeated, along party lines, a Democratic amendment that would have expanded detainees' legal rights. Bush is scheduled to meet with GOP senators this morning for a final pep rally before the measure's expected passage, which would enable the president to hold a signing ceremony before the Nov. 7 elections.
Republicans hope to campaign on the bill as proof of their party's tough stand against terrorism. Many congressional Democrats decided to swallow their misgivings to avoid being portrayed as less than vigilant against suspects.
Another bill — authorizing Bush's once-secret warrantless-surveillance program — is unlikely to clear Congress until after the election.
Barring a last-minute snag, the House and Senate action will conclude three months of debate that began in late June, after the Supreme Court struck down military commissions established by Bush without Congress' input. The White House responded by proposing legislation that still embraced much of its military commission setup and interrogation practices, but three Republican senators forced Bush to modify several points.
The compromise legislation does not seek to narrow U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of prisoners, as Bush had hoped. But it would give the executive branch substantial leeway in deciding how to comply with treaty obligations.
War crimes defined, including torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, murder, mutilation or maiming, rape and biological experiments.
President Bush would not be allowed to interpret U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the 1949 treaty that sets international standards on prisoner treatment, or authorize any interrogation technique that amounted to a war crime. But he could "interpret the meaning and application" of Geneva Convention standards applied to less severe interrogation procedures.
Establishes legal system to prosecute "unlawful enemy combatants." U.S. citizens or those who fight for a sovereign state would not be included. The commission would determine punishment, including death.
Defendant allowed to examine and respond to any evidence, although an unclassified summary would be allowed if classified information is needed for prosecution. If unwilling to provide such a summary, charges could be dropped without releasing the combatant.
Hearsay evidence allowed if a judge deems it reliable.
Coerced testimony allowed in narrow circumstances, generally if acquired before a 2005 ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and a judge finds it to be reliable.
Defendants can't sue in civilian courts.
The Associated Press
It would bar military commissions from considering testimony obtained through interrogation techniques that involve "cruel, unusual or inhumane treatment or punishment," which is proscribed by the 5th, 8th and 14th amendments to the Constitution. But the bar would be retroactive to Dec. 30, 2005, when Congress adopted the Detainee Treatment Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to protect CIA operatives from being prosecuted over interrogation tactics used before then.
Human-rights groups warned that provisions such as prohibiting detainees from challenging their imprisonment in court and permitting the use of coerced evidence puts the bill on dubious legal footing. The groups also said the measure could subject detainees to brutal treatment.
Some Democrats agreed.
"Let me be very clear; I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for the planners and perpetrators of 9/11," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif. But she said the bill would "do nothing but put us in further legal limbo."
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, "This bill is practically begging to be overturned by the [Supreme Court]."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed confidence that the bill would withstand court challenge. He also disputed contentions that detainees weren't being given enough rights.
When trials begin, Americans can "watch all those rights being accorded to people who designed the attack against the United States and decide whether or not they agree with the Democrats that there weren't enough rights given to the defendants," Hunter said.
A bipartisan effort led by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to strip out the provision preventing detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions — demands for legal justification for their imprisonment — is expected to come before the Senate today.
The House and Senate bills allow use of interrogation methods that would be tougher than what the military uses but do not specify what is permitted or banned.
Waterboarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to believe he is drowning, would be banned, according to those who helped broker the deal. McCain allies and some human-rights advocates say sleep deprivation and exposure to extreme temperatures would be banned.
"I don't think that the CIA will be comfortable going back to those techniques if McCain, the chief architect of the compromise, believes those techniques are against the law," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.
Washington state votes provided by The Associated Press
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