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Senate Panel Defies Bush on Treatment of Terrorists


The stage is set for a confrontation between the White House and the U.S. Senate on the sensitive and complex issue of how best to try and treat terror suspects. A key Senate committee has approved a proposal that has already been rejected by the Bush administration.

The problem is to come up with a system that will be effective, legal, and in line with international standards on the treatment of prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court has, in essence, challenged the administration and the Congress to meet these criteria. Everyone involved agrees the stakes are high, and acknowledges the task is very difficult.

The White House says part of the problem is the wording in the Geneva Conventions - which outlines international norms for the treatment of prisoners in wartime - is vague. President Bush says he wants a system that will permit tough interrogations within limits set by law, and will set up military commissions to try terror suspects.

He made his case personally Thursday morning to Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives. A few hours later, he spoke about the issue again - this time following a meeting at the White House with the President of South Korea.

"This is an important program for the security of this country," said President Bush. "And we want to work with Congress to make sure that the program can go forward."

A House committee has approved a version of the legislation the president likes. But the story is very different in the Senate where several prominent Republicans on the Armed Services Committee are pushing a proposal opposed by the White House.

They include Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, former Vietnam-era prisoner of war John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, the only member of the Senate who is also a reserve officer in the military court system.

They want a program to try terror suspects that more resembles the traditional approach of military courts, with greater rights for the defendants than those envisioned by the Bush administration.

Their proposal was approved by the Armed Services Committee Thursday by a 15-9 vote, and sent on to the full Senate. Susan Collins was the only other committee Republican to vote with them, along with all the Democrats on the panel.

Senator Warner said he still wants to work with the White House, and complete work on the legislation within a matter of weeks.

"I respect the views of others who differ from us," said Senator Warner. "But it is a very important piece of legislation - one which I feel the Congress has an obligation to prepare and act upon and present to the president hopefully, before this September period of the Congress concludes."

Although he hinted at compromise, Senator Warner also indicated he believes the approach preferred by the White House may not meet the standards set by the Supreme Court, which ruled the current system for trying detainees does not meet Constitutional standards.

"It is my fervent hope that whatever the Congress does, the legislation will be able to withstand further scrutiny by the federal court system and indeed the Supreme Court of the United States," he said.

Among those backing Senators Warner, McCain and Graham is former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In a letter released Thursday, Powell said the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of America's fight against terrorism. He said if adopted, the president's tough approach to interrogations and trials would add to those doubts.

When asked about the letter, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Powell, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is confused about the president's plan. Later, Snow apologized and said no one should question Colin Powell's commitment to winning the war on terror.

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