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Terrorism Tribunals and the Fall Campaign

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Politics was front and center this past week, beginning with the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and claims that President Bush politicized the event with his Monday night speech. The week ended with the president adamantly pushing for approval of his plan to deal with detainees and fending off alternate proposals.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program's not going forward.

HANSEN: He was opposed by Democrats and a quartet of powerful Republicans, including Senator John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which approved legislation the president vowed to block.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): We want to give authority to our president to conduct the military trials by the executive branch and do it in a way in accordance with our domestic law and consistent with the treaties of the land.

HANSEN: Joining us now is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Good morning, welcome back, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Well, good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Let's start with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. It seems to be the crux of the issue, and I'll just talk a little bit, in part, what it says. It says that detainees should in all circumstances be treated humanely. To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited: violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, taking of hostages, outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. Explain how the president wants to clarify that article.

Mr. McMANUS: Well, actually, international lawyers say that article is already plenty clear because it's been in effect and accepted by the United States for more than 50 years.

What the president wants to do is not so much clarify it as rein it in a little bit. What he specifically pointed to was that clause about humiliating and degrading treatment, which could cover a lot of acts, including apparently some of the extreme measures that the CIA has used in interrogation: keeping prisoners in cold cells, keeping them standing for long periods of time, stuff that under the administration's rules doesn't amount to torture but under a different judge's rules might.

And so what the president wants to do is write into law, in effect, what the - well, is write into law that the United States gets to decide what falls under these prohibitions and not to allow anyone else to do it.

HANSEN: But beyond Common Article 3, what else does the president want?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, there is also a dispute here over what the rules would be on the trials of these detainees. What kind of evidence would be allowed to be introduced? If confessions or other information had been obtained through coercion, through tough interrogations, would they be admissible? And then the other question is whether classified information could be introduced as evidence against a defendant but not given to the defendant. That's what the president would like. Others say no. If you're going to have a trial, the defendant ought to see all of the evidence against him.

HANSEN: So what does the legislation passed by the Armed Services Committee say?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, in particular the Armed Services Committee, Senator McCain, Senator Warner - both good conservative Republicans - say, you know, we ought to stick closer to the standard American tradition of trials. Defendants, or at least their lawyers, ought to see all the evidence. And the other point, though, and the one that has produced the most heat, is that Senator McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said don't mess with the Geneva Convention. If the United States starts trimming or amending the Geneva Conventions, we will put ourselves in a position that over time we don't want to be. We'll in effect be giving other countries permission to amend the Geneva Conventions when they take American prisoners.

HANSEN: Colin Powell, the president's former secretary of state, came out very publicly against his former boss. Did that surprise you?

Mr. McMANUS: It did, although Colin Powell has been slowly seething with frustration at the Bush administration. It was interesting that General Powell came out publicly and forcefully against the administration not on the question of the war in Iraq and not on the question of how intelligence was used and he was caught up in that process, but instead on a question close to his entire career: what would be the status of American soldiers if they were captured by foreign powers?

HANSEN: So given the president's strong opposition, is there any room at all for compromise in this?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, I think there may be, for two reasons. One is, the president left a little bit of wiggle room. He said he wants clarity. He didn't say exactly what the rules had to be. He wants clarity. The second is that Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, who like Senator McCain wants to run for president, has staked his reputation on getting a deal here. Senator Frist says it will be part of his job as a leader to get a deal within the next two weeks.

HANSEN: Do you there there'll be a Senate vote?

Mr. McMANUS: I think there will be a Senate vote, but then of course you've got a conference, and the House is on the president's side on this, so there are several acts to go.

HANSEN: Well, I imagine that the president would prefer to be arguing against Democrats rather than members of his own party, but were there any positives at all in this for him?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, there is. For one thing, any week that the president gets to dominate the stage with an argument about terrorism means it's a week that we're not arguing about Iraq. And the second is, this is an issue that may get loyal conservative Republicans out to the polls. It may get them angry, and that's been the core of the Republican strategy all year.

HANSEN: All right, so amid all of this sound and fury, do you think the outlook for November's Congressional election has changed at all?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, because of that last factor, you would have to say that things are slipping a little bit in the president's direction. His approval rating has popped above 40 percent. There are a few signs that Republicans are looking better in the polls. They have a long way to go, and several weeks to get there, but they seem to have stopped the Democrat's momentum.

HANSEN: And just one question about Senator John McCain. He may run for the Republican presidential nomination. Isn't this a risk he's taking by opposing his own party's president?

Mr. McMANUS: It is a risk because he has to appeal to those strong conservatives to get that nomination. He's already taking heat from the right.

HANSEN: Doyle McManus is Washington Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times and a regular guest on WEEKEND EDITION. Doyle, thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.