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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 15, 2006; 11:10 AM

A handful of Republican senators are messing up both President Bush's attempt to legalize conduct that could well be described as torture -- and his party's attempts to mock Democrats for caring about such things.

Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "A Senate committee rebuffed the personal entreaties of President Bush yesterday, rejecting his proposed strategies for interrogating and trying enemy combatants and approving alternative legislation that he has strenuously opposed.

"The bipartisan vote sets up a legislative showdown on an issue that GOP strategists had hoped would unite their party and serve as a cudgel against Democrats in the Nov. 7 elections. Instead, Bush and congressional Republican leaders are at loggerheads with a dissident group led by Sen. John McCain (R), who says the president's approach would jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops and intelligence operatives. . . .

"The disagreement centers mainly on how to square the CIA's techniques with the Geneva Conventions, which say wartime detainees must be 'treated humanely.' The administration bill says the United States complies with the conventions as long as interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring 'cruel, inhuman or degrading' treatment of captives.

"McCain and his chief Republican allies on the Senate committee, Chairman John W. Warner (Va.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), say that this requirement is too narrow and that the United States should not try to limit its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, they want CIA officers to abide by the common understanding of the treaty's meaning, including a ban on 'outrages upon personal dignity.'"

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "The White House had said [the senators'] legislation would leave the United States no option but to shut down a C.I.A. program to interrogate high-level terrorism suspects."

But McCain disagrees: "'What [CIA Director General Michael] Hayden wants us to do is immunize him not from liability but from criticism,' Mr. McCain said after the vote, 'because if one of his techniques is made public and he gets criticized, then he can say, "Well, Congress told me to do it." He's trying to protect his reputation at the risk of America's reputation.'"

Zernike notes: "The bill may face amendment in any case. Some Democrats object to a provision that would block detainees from challenging their detention in court. More than two dozen retired federal judges sent a letter to Congress arguing that such a provision would lead to unlawful permanent detention, and defy Supreme Court precedent."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and Congressional Republicans spent the last 10 days laying the foundation for a titanic pre-election struggle over national security, and now they have one. But the fight playing out this week on Capitol Hill is not what they had in mind.

"Instead of drawing contrasts with Democrats, the president's call for creating military tribunals to try terror suspects -- a key substantive and political component of his fall agenda -- has erupted into a remarkably intense clash pitting some of the best-known warriors in the Republican Party against Mr. Bush and the Congressional leadership."

Bush's position took a blow with a letter released yesterday from his former secretary of State, Colin Powell. Powell wrote: "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

Bush Speaks

The White House announced this morning that Bush would hold a press conference at 11:15 a.m. ET, after this column's deadline.

According to ABC's t he Note : "The president knows that said press corps will always side with Colin Powell over George W. Bush, and he doesn't much care. What the White House DOES care about is dominating every news cycle for the next 53 days. So today's way is: a press conference."

Yesterday, Bush made some brief remarks about the Senate debate:

"So the question I ask about any piece of legislation is, will the program provide legal clarity so that our professionals will feel comfortable about going forward with the program? That's what I'm going to ask. And I will resist any bill that does not enable this program to go forward with legal clarity. . . .

"If there's not clarity, if there's ambiguity, if there's any doubt in our professionals' minds that they can conduct their operations in a legal way, with support of the Congress, the program won't go forward and the American people will be in danger."

Briefing Follies, Part One

Yesterday's press briefing was a doozy.

Press secretary Tony Snow was in full spin mode, suggesting that the administration's attempts to route around the Geneva Conventions was actually a sign of the administration's respect for them.

"[T]he problem we have right now is that there are no standards and anybody can do whatever they want; in some cases, maybe they are. If you lay out what's going on, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, then everybody is off the same playbook. So, no, this is -- and somehow I think there's this construct in people's minds that we want to restore the rack and start getting people screaming, having their bones crunching, and that's not at all what this is about. Torture is prohibited, murder is prohibited, rape is prohibited, cruel and degrading treatment is prohibited; all those things are prohibited, and what we're trying to do is to make clear what the prohibited list is. That's a good thing, not a bad thing."

But of course it's not about clarity, it's about latitude. Everyone knows that, including Snow.

And one of Snow's main talking points: That Commmon Article 3 had never been an issue before.

"Q Tony, I'm confused. Everybody I talked to today on the Hill says, look, you've had the Geneva Conventions in place since 1947. This isn't the Migratory Birds Treaty we're talking about. This is the Geneva Conventions.

"MR. SNOW: Right.

"Q And it's a very simple argument. We don't want to talk about the definition of amend or change, but that it stands on its own as written, hasn't been tinkered with since 1947, doesn't need to be tinkered with now. So if that seems to be the position from a former JAG and a former POW and a former secretary of the Navy, where's the room to work anything out? . . .

"MR. SNOW: Well, that's because Common Article III had never been construed as applying to any conflict in which the United States had ever been a party. And furthermore, it has not been construed as applying to conflicts for the most part that afflicted any of our allies, to which they've been a party."

But as Richard Simon, Julian E. Barnes and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times Common Article 3 "establishes basic protections that must be offered to all combatants -- whether they are terrorists, warring tribes, insurgents or any other kind of irregular fighter."

As for Colin Powell:

"Q So do you think that Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is just confused about what you're trying to do?

"MR. SNOW: Yes."

And later on came this exchange:

"Q But, yes, Colin Powell, what about his larger point, that the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis for the war on terror?

"MR. SNOW: I don't think so. Look at what happened on Sept. 11th. You had Jacques Chirac sending regards this week. We've had a number of other people."

So America still maintains its moral basis for the war because Jacques Chirac sent a sympathy note about Sept. 11?

Martha Raddatz of ABC followed up:

"Q But you said, 'I don't think so,' about moral basis, you didn't think so because Jacques Chirac --

"MR. SNOW: He said, 'moral basis of the war on terror.' The moral basis of the war on terror is -- I don't think you're going to try to claim moral equivalence between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. I don't think you want to go there. And that is --

"Q I don't think I'd be going there.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, well, then you've made my point, which is that there are competing ideologies in this world."

So the official White House response is that America maintains its moral basis for the war because Bush is not as evil as bin Laden?

Cutting to the Chase

Legal blogger Marty Lederman writes that "when all the smoke has cleared, the central question is quite simple. . . .

"Should the CIA be legally authorized to breach the Geneva Conventions by engaging in the following forms of 'cruel treatment' prohibited by 'common' Article 3(1)(a) of those Conventions?:

"-- 'Cold Cell,' or hypothermia, where a prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees, during which he is doused with cold water.

"-- 'Long Time Standing,' in which a prisoner is forced to stand, handcuffed and with his feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours.

"-- Other forms of 'stress positions' and prolonged sleep deprivation, perhaps akin to 'Long Time Standing.'

"-- Threats of violence and death of a detainee and/or his family."

Those would all be good things to insist that Bush address today.

Opinion Watch, Part I

"The president goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for torture," says the headline over a Washington Post editorial today. "President Bush rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly."

Bush on Iran

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column about his one-on-one interview in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Ignatius is just back from Iran, from where he recently wrote : "The trick for America and its allies is somehow to recognize Iran's ambitions to be a regional power without allowing the revolutionary leadership embodied by [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to further destabilize the Middle East. I'm a naturally optimistic person, but right now that looks to me like Mission Impossible."

Today, Ignatius writes that, in the interview, Bush "made clear that the administration wants a diplomatic solution to the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program -- one that is premised on an American recognition of Iran's role as an important nation in the Middle East."

After a group interview with the president on Tuesday, Rich Lowry wrote in the National Review that Bush's language led him to the conclusion "that the seemingly interminable Iran diplomacy is the necessary run-up to a strike on Iran has something to it."

But Ignatius disagrees: "In recent days, the Washington rumor mill has been bubbling with talk that the administration is planning military options for dealing with the crisis, perhaps in the near term. But Bush's remarks went in a different direction. . . .

"I came away with a sense that Bush is serious about finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis, and that he is looking hard for ways to make connections between America and Iran."

Poll Watch

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "More than a third of Americans view the November elections as chance to vote against the policies of President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, a poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found.

"Thirty-six percent of those polled said the congressional elections on Nov. 7 will be an opportunity to cast a symbolic vote against the president, up from 15 percent before the last mid-term election in 2002, according to the survey by the Washington-base Pew Center."

Here's the report from Pew , which also finds that "there is no evidence that the renewed focus on terrorism has improved Bush's standing; his job approval rating stands at 37%, unchanged from August."

Wiretapping Watch

Meanwhile, blogger Glenn Greenwald writes that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is vowing to block a White-House approved bill that would authorize Bush's extralegal warrantless wiretapping program.

Scathing Words

From Jimmy Carter , talking to Larry King on CNN:

"KING: Is this a struggle for civilization as the president says?

"CARTER: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that the present altercation with terrorists is a very serious problem . . . But it certainly ought not to be escalated to a struggle for civilization.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the United States is secure, stable, permanent. . . . So, I think that's a gross exaggeration of a threat, although the threat is serious. . . .

"KING: Your reaction to Vice President Cheney's assertion that the criticism of Iraq, the Iraq war, emboldens United States enemies and makes allies doubt American resolve.

"CARTER: Well, the vice president unfortunately has been consistently very careless with the truth. He still maintains some preposterous comments and attitudes toward the origins of the Iraqi war, the circumstances in Iraq now and he's had a policy in my opinion of deliberately trying to mislead the American people by making untrue statements and there's no reason to give any credence to his ridiculous claims that you've just described."

From a floor speech by Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.): "It is up to the Congress to change course and to stop the heinous raiding of constitutionally protected liberties by a White House which does not fully appreciate the true meaning of the word freedom. I hope that we may find the courage."

From a floor speech by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.): "America is tired of the wrongheaded and boneheaded leadership of the Republican Party that has sent six-and-a-half billion dollars a month to Iraq when the front line was Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. That led this country to attack Saddam Hussein, when we were attacked by Osama bin Laden. Who captured a man that did not attack the country and left loose a man that did. Americans are tired of boneheaded Republican leadership that alienates our allies when we need them the most. And Americans are most certainly tired of leadership that -- despite documented mistakes after mistake after mistake, even of their own party admitting mistakes -- never admit that they ever do anything wrong. That's the kind of leadership Americans are tired of."

Book Report

In Salon, Gary Kamiya reviews Louise Richardson's new book, "What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat," and concludes: "It was Bush's failure to distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that got us into the mess we are in today. If his latest sales pitch for an undifferentiated 'war on terror' succeeds, the result will be permanent war, the hatred of at least a sixth of the world and serious long-term damage to our nation's standing. Whether Americans will realize this, call off Bush's radical 'war on terror,' recognize who our actual enemies are and start to fight them with our brains, not just our muscles, may determine whether a terrorist in a cave with a handful of followers will succeed in doing what empires and f├╝hrers could not."

As for Richardson, Kamiya writes that she "has two main critiques of Bush's anti-terrorism policies. The first is now accepted by virtually everyone who is not invested in Bush's war: We should never have attacked Iraq because it had nothing to do with international terrorism. By doing so, we squandered international support, stirred up Muslim and Arab rage, and made the terrorism threat far worse. Her second point is more controversial because it directly challenges the Bush administration's Manichaean, good-vs.-evil response to terrorism: The entire 'war on terror' was a mistake.' Our objective should not be the completely unattainable goal of obliterating terrorism; rather, we should pursue the more modest and attainable goal of containing terrorism recruitment and constraining resort to the tactic of terrorism.'

"This means learning about our enemies, not just demonizing them. Under Bush's leadership, however, thinking is tantamount to appeasement."

Opinion Watch, Part II

Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Democrats' mistake -- ironically, in a year all about Mr. Bush -- is obsessing on Mr. Bush. They've been sucker-punched by their own animosity.

"'The Democrats now are incapable of answering a question on policy without mentioning Bush six times,' says pollster Kellyanne Conway. '"What is your vision on Iraq?" "Bush lied us into war." "Health care?" "Bush hasn't a clue." They're so obsessed with Bush it impedes them from crafting and communicating a vision all their own.' They heighten Bush by hating him."

From the RNC

An e-mail from Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman: "Everything is on the line.

"It's more than just the House, the Senate, and 36 governorships. It's whether the president's efforts to keep Americans safe will grind to a halt with Democrats in control of funding every aspect of the War on Terror . . . whether Democrats will be allowed to carry out their threat to raise your taxes by $2.4 trillion . . . whether Democrats will get their wish of investigating -- and maybe even impeaching -- our president. "

The Clintons and the Bushes

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Another member of the Bush family is getting cozy with former President Clinton. First lady Laura Bush joins the former president as a keynote speaker opening his three-day Clinton Global Initiative in New York next week.

"Clinton has famously formed a close friendship with the current president's dad. . . .

"Clinton also sparked curiosity when he was spotted at the White House last month. It turns out that he and the current president were having lunch, something White House aides said they do occasionally."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune about how "Laura Bush, in fact, has become the popular face of an unpopular White House."

Briefing Follies, Part II

Jeff DuFour and Patrick Gavin write in the Washington Examiner that they have "reviewed the press briefing and press gaggle transcripts from Snow's first four months on the job and compared them to those of Snow's predecessor, Scott McClellan, during his first four months.

"Under Snow, there were more than 330 percent more instances of laughter -- as defined by the transcriber's insertion of '(Laughter)' in the transcript -- than under McClellan. . . .

"'It's not that Tony's necessarily a laugh riot,' says Ron Hutcheson, who covers the White House for McClatchy newspapers. 'But he engages, and it's a lot more fun to be in the room with somebody who's engaging reporters.' Hutcheson says that McClellan, on the other hand, 'was just cautious, cautious to a fault. He would retreat to the talking points and it was almost as if he didn't listen to the question.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on torture; Pat Oliphant on Bush and bin Laden; Mike Luckovich on Monday's speech; Steve Sack is on a roll (scroll through); David Horsey rewrites "New York, New York"; Ben Sargent , Stuart Carlson and Tony Auth have remarkably similar views about Cheney.

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today a little after 2 p.m. If you're not in the D.C. area, you can listen online . It's a great opportunity to ask me questions, by the way. Call toll-free right at 2, at 1-877-POST-1077, or e-mail the radio station at comment@washingtonpostradio.com .

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