Congress Passing Detainee Bill; Wiretapping Measure Delayed

Bush to sign detainee bill into law immediately; wiretapping measure won't be approved before midterm elections.

President Bush continues to get his way with Congress.

In the wake of 9/11 he saw the highly controversial Patriot Act — which called for a dramatic expansion of law-enforcement authority — overwhelmingly pass despite Democrats' concerns over privacy. Five years later, the president proposed two equally contentious bills to Congress this week, asking for more executive-branch autonomy. And he got it.

The Senate voted 65-24 on Thursday to pass a measure on the interrogations and trials of terrorism suspects, one day after the House agreed to a nearly identical measure by a 253-168 vote. A surveillance bill that would authorize Bush's warrantless domestic spying program also passed in the House but was delayed in the Senate over variations in the proposal senators received. For that reason, Bush won't be able to sign the latter bill into law before the November 7 midterm elections, as he had intended.

The Senate is expected to approve the House's detainee bill Friday (September 29), and Bush is expected to sign it into law immediately. Under the detainee legislation, the president will be given leeway to interpret the Geneva Conventions — the international treaties that set the humanitarian standards for war prisoners — as he sees fit. Language in the bill will still define severe abuses through means of mutilation and rape by the Geneva Conventions, however captured-prisoners' rights will be severely impaired. Hearsay evidence — which is barred in civilian court cases — and increased interrogation methods that normally would be deemed illegal in international courts, will now be permissible under the new bill.

The wiretapping bill continues a White House push first reported by The New York Times last year. President Bush secretly authorized national-security officials in 2002 to eavesdrop on calls made within the United States (see "Bush Gave U.S. Agency Authorization To Spy On Americans" and "President Bush Defends Secret Wiretaps, Urges Patriot Act Renewal"). The practice was viewed as a considerable shift in strategy for intelligence organizations that typically gather counterterrorism information abroad.

The two detainee and wiretapping bills are expected to precede impending military trials for alleged al Qaeda members being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president has made no secret his desire to prevent further attacks on American soil, and he says each bill is the result of long-term efforts by his administration to move forward in prosecuting suspected terrorists. The timing, however, is being called into question amid federal leaks and the forthcoming midterm elections.

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Last week an intelligence report leaked reporting within the administration that the war in Iraq is inspiring a new generation of Islamic radicals (see "White House, Rice Downplay Report That Iraq War Has Made Terrorism Worse"). After denying initial reports about the leak as politically motivated — as the midterm elections near, homeland security has once again become a hot-button topic — Bush and the White House declassified four pages of the 30-page National Intelligence Report on Wednesday (see "Bush Releases Four Pages Of Controversial Intelligence Report"). That section of the report confirmed that Muslim jihads were "increasing in both number and geographic dispersion" since the 9/11 attacks.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with MTV News on Monday and denied reports that the United States' efforts in Iraq were helping to induce further terror cells (see "Condoleezza Rice Tells MTV News Democracy, Education, Respect Are Keys To Peace"). Rice claimed that the presence of the U.S. in the Middle East is helping to eradicate hateful views of the Western world. She said the missions are peaceful, not forced coercion.

"These are people who've had lots of different reasons for fighting us," she said. "The terrorists are always going to have ways to recruit people to their cause. Our job is to recruit people to the cause of peace and prosperity. And our job is to defeat those who are intent on killing innocent people in the perversion of the name of a great religion."

Several prominent Democrats, such as Barack Obama of Illinois and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as 2008 presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, voted against both of President Bush's proposed bills. Senator Obama worried that the resolution set forth was an operative to gain votes rather than protect the best interest of Americans.

"I'm still disappointed, and I'm still ashamed, because what we're doing here today — a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused — should be bigger than politics," he told The Washington Post.

The president continued to hold in his intent.

"The Senate sent a strong signal to the terrorists that we will continue using every element of national power to pursue our enemies and prevent attacks on America," Bush said in a statement issued Thursday night.