Bush Backs Down, Reaches Agreement With Congress On Detainee Treatment

President drops demand to redefine Geneva Conventions.

President Bush pledged last week that he would not go forward on his plan to detain and interrogate terror suspects unless he reached an agreement with Congress on very specific rules of engagement. In the latest in a string of setbacks for the White House on terrorism-related issues, the president softened his stance on Thursday, agreeing to drop his demand that Congress redefine the United States' obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which governs the treatment of enemy combatants.

The agreement by the White House was a victory for a group led by four leading Republican senators, who strongly objected to the president's insistence on "clarifying" the Conventions' language (see "Bush Administration Asks Congress To Define Rights Of Terrorism Detainees "). The struggle over detainee interrogation and treatment had opened a very public rift in the Republican Party, which has been trying to put forward a unified front on security issues in the lead up to the important November mid-term elections (see "Republicans Defy Bush On Terror-Detainee Rights").

The White House had insisted that the Conventions' language banning "outrages upon personal dignity" was too vague and could lead to legal actions against U.S. forces by international courts. A group led by Republican Senator John McCain — who was tortured for five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — and three Republican colleagues countered that if the U.S. sought to ease its obligations under international law, other countries might do the same when holding and interrogating U.S. forces.

"There is no doubt that the integrity and the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved," McCain said Thursday, according to The New York Times. The deal was announced after what the paper called a "tense and intricate" all-day meeting in Vice President Dick Cheney's office in the Senate building. The plan is to try and push the measure through for a vote in Congress in the remaining five days before members leave for this session to go out and campaign for the upcoming elections.

The White House insisted that it had not caved in to the senators' demands, characterizing the negotiations as a win for all sides. "The agreement clears the way to do what the American people expect us to do: to capture terrorists, to detain terrorists, to question terrorists, and then to try them," Bush said at a Republican fundraiser in Orlando, Florida.

Under the deal, Congress will try to clarify the limits of what methods U.S. interrogators can use by making the domestic War Crimes Act match up more closely with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (see "What Are The Geneva Conventions?"). Specifically, it would eliminate a provision the White House had asked for that said compliance with the Detainee Treatment Act — passed by Congress last year, which bans "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" — satisfies U.S. obligations under the conventions.

The Times reported that the agreement reached Thursday makes it clear that the White House is responsible for upholding the nations' commitment to the Geneva Conventions and that it is up to the president to establish publicly available rules on violations for the handling of terrorism suspects that fall short of a "grave breach." Among the "grave breaches" not allowed: torture and other forms of assault and mental stress, though the document does not specifically say which interrogation techniques are prohibited.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who joined McCain in taking on the White House on this issue, said the agreement will "take off the table things that are not within American values," specifically mentioning the controversial simulated drowning technique known as "water-boarding" as a practice that "we need to let the world know we are no longer engaging in." The senators also won agreement on their insistence that terror suspects be allowed to see any evidence the jury sees, though highly sensitive details that might be used to plan later attacks would be stripped out. It also would ban hearsay evidence the defense successfully argues is not reliable and would disallow evidence obtained by techniques that violate the Detainee Treatment Act.

The senators agreed to a White House proposal to make the standard on interrogation treatment retroactive to 1997, so CIA and military personnel could not be prosecuted for past treatment under standards the administration considers vague, the Times reported.