WASHINGTON – A Republican deal on terrorism trials and interrogations would give President Bush wide latitude to interpret standards for prisoner treatment, even though it doesn’t include a provision he wanted on the Geneva Conventions.
The resulting legislation, if 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 found guilty 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 California Rep. Jane Harman, who as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee has been briefed on how the CIA handles terrorism suspects.
The GOP 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 to less severe interrogation procedures. Such a provision is intended to allow him 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” the Geneva Conventions’ obligations by executive order, which must be published in the Federal Register
Harman said Friday she wants the 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.
President Bush has been pushing legislation that would endorse the CIA program since June, when the Supreme Court ruled al-Qaida 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.
The Republican bill provides legal protection for the CIA program by precisely defining and enumerating atrocities widely accepted as war crimes – including 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 GOP bill allows the president to make the call.