The battle for international law continues in the US

From CNN International

WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday voted 15-9 to recommend a bill – over the objections of the Bush administration – that would authorize tribunals for terror suspects in a way that it says would protect suspects’ rights.

The bill was backed by Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

It differs from the administration’s proposal in two major ways: It would permit terror suspects to view classified evidence against them and does not include a proposal that critics say reinterprets a Geneva Conventions rule that prohibits cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees.

In a decision earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration must meet Article III standards in its treatment of detainees.

Article III prohibits nations engaged in combat not of “an international character” from, among other things, “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.”

White House: Critics ‘confused’

The vote came after White House spokesman Tony Snow said opponents of its proposal on detainee treatment misunderstood the administration’s intentions when it proposed to define how Article III applies to the interrogation of terrorist suspects.

The administration believes that the court’s ruling prevents it from properly interrogating terrorist suspects because it opens military and CIA personal to prosecutions, so the White House asked Congress to define the the terms of Article III, Snow said.

“If you have people in the field trying to question terrorists, if you do not have clear legal definitions, they themselves will be subject to the whims and the differing interpretations given by foreign courts, foreign judges and foreign tribunals,” Snow said. “And we don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also sent a letter to Sen. John McCain saying that the administration’s “proposed legislation would strengthen U.S. adherence to Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions because it would add meaningful definitions and clarification to vague terms in the treaties.”

Powell breaks with administration

But critics, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and top Republican senators, oppose reinterpretation of the Geneva Conventions rule.

Powell expressed his opposition in a letter to McCain that was released Thursday.

Warner, Graham, and McCain, a former Vietnam POW — along with Powell — oppose any changes to the U.S. interpretation of Article III, arguing that it could adversely affect enemies’ treatment of captured U.S. service members. (Watch why the GOP is split over tribunals — 2:40″)

“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” Powell, a retired Army four-star general, wrote in his letter to McCain, whose amendment last year opposed the use of torture. (Read Powell’s letter)

“To redefine Common Article III would add to those doubts,” Powell said. “Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.”

McCain also has issued a letter from retired Army Gen. John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Reagan administration, opposing the administration bill.

Vessey told McCain the measure “would undermine the moral basis which has generally guided our conduct in war throughout our history.”

Military lawyers also have raised concerns about the administration bill’s restrictions on due-process rights for defendants. Prosecutors would be able to present evidence to the tribunal that would be kept secret from the defense and could use hearsay and coerced confessions against defendants. Human rights groups have objected to those provisions as well.

Powell’s letter surfaced while Bush held a morning meeting with Republican lawmakers to lobby for his tribunal plan.

Bush: Changes are essential

After returning to the White House from Capitol Hill, Bush said the administration’s proposed re-interpretation of Article III was essential if necessary intelligence was to be obtained from terrorist suspects.

“It is very important for the American people to understand that in order to protect this country, we must be able to interrogate people who have information about future attacks,” Bush said. “I will resist any bill that does not enable this program to go forward with legal clarity.

“If there’s not clarity, if there’s ambiguity, if there’s any doubt in our professionals’ mind if they can conduct their operation in a legal way, with support of the Congress, the program won’t go forward and the American people will be in danger,” Bush said.

Vice President Dick Cheney and White House adviser Karl Rove joined Bush in his meeting with Republican lawmakers, The Associated Press reported.

Passage of the legislation is viewed as critical to the GOP’s strategy to present itself as the party of national security going into the midterm elections less than two months away.

Republican showdown looming

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has threatened to ignore the Armed Services Committee and bring the administration’s plan directly to the Senate floor, which could lead to an election-year showdown within Republican ranks.

The House Armed Services Committee passed legislation that authorizes terrorist tribunals that closely adheres to the Bush administration proposal on Wednesday.