In the fight over rules for the interrogation and trials of terrorism suspects, there is a split — not so much between Republicans and Democrats or the White House and the Senate, but between leaders like President Bush with no combat experience and those like Colin Powell who know combat and want to maintain the Geneva Conventions as a protection for US troops. Powell prefers the bill before Congress sponsored by Republican Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom have considerable military experience. Their bill, which the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Thursday, has deep flaws of its own, but it is a better basis for legislation than Bush’s proposal to gut the Geneva Conventions.
The military has to take the long view because it knows that if the United States strays from the Geneva Conventions, other countries will, too. As McCain said yesterday on ABC-TV, “We are more exposed than any other nationality because we have more people all over the world.” The military also knows that harsh interrogations often yield false information from prisoners eager to say anything to win better treatment. One terrorism suspect, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, “confessed” knowledge of links between Al Qaeda and Iraq after the Central Intelligence Agency handed him over to Egyptian authorities. According to the recently released Senate report on prewar intelligence, Libi had made up the information to avoid cruel treatment by the Egyptians.
Neither Bush’s bill nor the Senate committee’s deserves passage as written. Each would strip the 400 or more detainees at Guantanamo of any right to appeal their cases to federal courts. Except for a handful of them, none has been charged with war crimes or terrorism. Some undoubtedly would present a threat if released and should be held longer, but others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of them deserve recourse to courts to challenge their continued detention.
At his press conference Friday, Bush challenged Powell’s statement that Bush’s redefinition of the Geneva Conventions would encourage the world to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Bush construed this to suggest a comparison between US behavior and that of “Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.” The proper comparison, though, is not with the conduct of terrorists but with the principles the United States has maintained in every war it has fought since adoption of the Geneva Conventions.
Those are the principles the Supreme Court upheld in June. Congress should follow suit by passing an amended version of the Senate committee bill that does not subject detainees to the limbo of Guantanamo with no access to the courts.