Bill may revive terror interrogations

AGGRESSIVE TECHNIQUES: If passed next week, the legislation could revive the CIA's program by reducing the risk of war crimes convictions for agency personnel


Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 7

A Republican deal on terrorism trials and interrogations would give US President George W. Bush wide latitude to interpret standards for prisoner treatment, even though it does not include a provision he wanted regarding the Geneva Conventions.

The resulting legislation, if it is passed next week by Congress as Republicans hope, would revive the CIA's terrorist interrogation program because it would reduce the risk that agency workers could be convicted of war crimes.

The deal also could open the door to aggressive techniques that test the bounds of international standards of prisoner treatment.

"The key to this deal will be whether Congress exercises real oversight over the CIA interrogation program," said Democratic Representative Jane Harman, who as the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has been briefed on how the CIA handles terrorism suspects.

The Republican bill outlines specific war crimes such as torture and rape, but it also says the president can "interpret the meaning and application" of the Geneva Convention standards for less severe interrogation procedures.

Such a provision is intended to allow the president to authorize methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the president plans to use this authority to clarify Geneva Convention obligations by executive order, which must be published in the Federal Register.

Harman said on Friday she wants the Bush administration to give Congress a list of techniques approved by the president and legal justification for the methods.

"If Congress does not demand this information, we will be giving the president another blank check to violate the law," she said.

Bush has been pushing legislation that would endorse the CIA program since June, when the Supreme Court ruled al-Qaeda members must be protected under the Geneva Conventions, a 1949 treaty that sets international standards for the treatment of war prisoners.

Before the court ruling, the legality of the interrogation program relied on Bush's assumption that the combatants were not protected under the treaty and therefore could be subjected to aggressive techniques.

US officials say the Supreme Court ruling, which also determined that the trials Bush established to prosecute the terrorists were illegal, threw cold water on the program because of fears interrogators could be prosecuted for war crimes.

The White House wanted to have Congress endorse the program with a law narrowly defining Geneva Convention standards, giving the president the latitude he wanted to continue the CIA program.

When three Republican senators objected and were joined by growing numbers of allies, claiming that such a move would be seen as an attempt to back out of the treaty, the White House relented.

In a deal struck on Thursday, the White House and Senate Republicans agreed to drop from the bill an abbreviated definition of Geneva Convention standards.

Enough legal parsing was added to the bill, however, to achieve the president's desired effect.

The Republican bill provides legal protection for the CIA program by more precisely defining and enumerating atrocities widely accepted as war-related crimes such as torture, rape, biological experiments and cruel and inhuman treatment.

For acts that do not rise to the level of a war crime but may test the bounds of the Geneva Conventions, the Republican bill allows the president to decide.