The U.S. Senate, following the lead of the House of Representatives, has approved legislation establishing rules for the treatment and trial of terror suspects. It is a victory for President Bush, who calls the measure an important tool in the war on terrorism.
Senators voted 65 - 34 for the legislation, which establishes military commissions to try terror suspects. The bill sets limits on the techniques used to interrogate detainees, and denies suspects access to courts to challenge their imprisonment.
The measure was drafted in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which struck down the Bush administration's military tribunal system, saying it violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions, which ensure the humane treatment of detainees.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, praised the bill.
"I am pleased that this legislation before the Senate does not amend, redefine, or modify the Geneva Conventions in any way. The Conventions are preserved intact," he said.
But many opposition Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, disagree, saying the bill falls far short of fair judicial standards and allows for abusive interrogation techniques. "I personally believe this legislation is unconstitutional. It will certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court in the years ahead, and when that happens, we will be back here debating how to bring terrorists to justice," he said.
Human rights groups agree. They note the bill does not allow suspects the right to challenge the legality of their detention in U.S. courts.
A slim majority of Senators rejected an amendment that would have offered detainees that right, arguing that terror suspects are not entitled to the same rights as U.S. soldiers and citizens, and saying such court challenges could hinder detainees' military trials.
Senators also voted down several other amendments that would have, among other things, clarified interrogation tactics and strengthened congressional oversight of military commissions.
Among the other provisions, the overall bill allows for coerced testimony in limited circumstances - if a judge finds it reliable and the statement was taken before a 2005 ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It also allows for hearsay evidence, again if a judge finds it reliable.
The bill allows defendants limited access to classified evidence used to convict them. It also expands the definition of "enemy combatants" to include those who provide weapons, money and other support to terrorist groups.
Passage of the measure is a victory for President Bush, who met with Senate Republicans just hours before the vote. "Our most solemn job is the security of this country. People should not forget there is an enemy out there that wants to do harm to the United States," he said.
Republicans hope to campaign on the legislation in the run-up to the November 7th election, which will decide control of Congress. They want to portray themselves as stronger than Democrats in the fight against terrorism. Some began the effort during Senate debate, accusing Democrats of trying to water down provisions of the bill.
"Some want to tie the hands of our terror fighters. They want to take away the tools we use to fight terror, to hand cuff us, to hamper us in our fight to protect our families," said Senator Chris Bond, a Missouri Republican.
Democrats, on the other hand, accused Republicans of hastily pushing the bill through Congress to give them an electoral boost in November. "It is being rushed through, a month before a major election in which the leadership of this very body is challenged," said Senator Dianne Feinstein from California.
President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law soon.