As the U.S. Congress left town for its August vacation, the George W. Bush administration was congratulating itself on its legislative victories.
But when Congress returns in September aside from the confirmation hearings for Judge John Roberts to be the next associate justice of the Supreme Court it will be facing multiple political tsunamis: reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, immigration reform, and consideration of the $491 billion defense bill.
Picking up consideration of the defense bill which includes $50 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq is likely to cause widespread White House heartburn. Lively debate was already well underway when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican from Tennessee, abruptly pulled the bill from consideration.
The reason was White House hostility to amendments setting standards for the treatment of enemy prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other military detention centers. The White House let it be known that the president would veto the defense-spending legislation if this provision was included in final legislation.
But White House angst about this amendment does not come from the usual suspects the Democrats. Its authors are leading Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a former military judge, and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain had been working with Graham and with Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to respond to widely publicized cases of prisoner abuse. They proposed to set specific standards for the treatment of foreign detainees.
The McCain-Graham-Warner amendment would require that the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation cover prisoners in military custody.
McCain said, "The Army Field Manual and its various editions have served America well, through wars against both regular and irregular foes. I think we all agree to fight terrorism we must obtain intelligence."
"But we have to ensure that it is reliable and acquired in a way that is humane. To do otherwise not only offends our national morals but undermines our efforts to protect the nation’s security."
Together with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, they also introduced an amendment that would prohibit cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of prisoners and would require the United States to abide by the Geneva Convention and other international agreements on the treatment of prisoners.
The two amendments would probably have received substantial Democratic support, giving them a strong chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Senate.
McCain, a leading sponsor of the interrogation-standard amendment, said, "We need to make sure that every member of the Department of Defense understands the procedures that are being used in interrogation and we don’t have a repetition of Abu Ghraib," referring to the prison in Iraq that became synonymous with detainee abuse.
Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS, "The administration’s actions in authorizing and condoning torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment are clearly illegal, and contrary to American ideals."
"Continuing to ignore the abuses being carried out puts detainees, American soldiers, and even all of us at home in jeopardy. It is long past time to act, and the American people should demand a thorough inquiry, all the way up the chain of command. "
"These senators sent a message that until the Senate deals directly with the issues of interrogation and detainee treatment, the DOD bill will not get through the Senate," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, a group advocating stricter rules for handling prisoners.
Pressure on the senators to back off came from Vice President Dick Cheney, among others. The White House issued a policy statement saying, "The administration strongly opposes such amendments, which would interfere with the protection of Americans from terrorism by diverting resources from the war to answer unnecessary or duplicative inquiry or by restricting the president’s ability to conduct the war effectively under existing law."
In support of his amendment, McCain read from a July 22 letter signed by 14 retired military officers, including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, and Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, the Navy’s judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000.
"The abuse of prisoners hurts America’s cause in the war on terror, endangers U.S. service members who might be captured by the enemy and is anathema to the values Americans have held dear for generations," the letter stated.
A third amendment was introduced by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, to set up an independent commission to study reports of abuse at military detention facilities. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, said he was considering support for an independent investigation.
Sentiment favoring such an investigation has slowly been gathering steam in Congress, since legislation was introduced last January by Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Graham charged that the White House and the Pentagon had issued confusing and contradictory directives regarding detainee treatment.
"Our people are trained to do it one way; you’re confusing the heck out of them. And what have we learned in the last two years? If you know what the rules are about interrogating anybody, come tell me, because I can’t figure it out," he said.
The White House view was articulated by conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who said, "I reject the idea that this Defense Department and our Army and our military is out of control, is confused about what their powers and duties and responsibilities are."