WASHINGTON, Sept 16 (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush on Saturday defended his proposals to allow tough questioning of suspected terrorists as necessary to keep Americans safe, despite a revolt in his own Republican Party over the issue.
With the U.S. Congress considering legislation on how to try and question foreign terrorist suspects, Bush is pushing a proposal to allow for what he calls “an alternative set of procedures” for CIA interrogations.
“As we work with the international community to defeat the terrorists and extremists, we must also provide our military and intelligence professionals the tools they need to keep our country safe,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.
A trio of powerful Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — has endorsed legislation that would protect the rights of detainees.
The rift among Republicans over the legislation comes as Bush has tried to rally his party behind a push to emphasize national security before elections in November in which Republicans are trying to maintain control of Congress.
The three senators object to Bush’s bid to define more narrowly the Geneva Conventions’ standards for humane treatment of prisoners, which the president insists is needed for the CIA to elicit valuable information from detainees.
The White House says it wants to “clarify” the Geneva Conventions’ provision.
McCain, Warner and Graham say the administration’s proposal would weaken the Geneva Conventions by encouraging other countries to interpret the language to meet their own needs, putting U.S. troops at risk of mistreatment. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“What is being billed as ‘clarifying’ our treaty obligations will be seen as ‘withdrawing’ from the treaty obligations,” Graham said in a statement on Friday. “It will set precedent which could come back to haunt us.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the version of legislation that McCain, Warner and Graham sought, while the House of Representatives has backed the president’s approach.
Bush reiterated he would try to seek “common ground” on the bill, but said it must allow the CIA questioning to continue because it had helped to foil plots.
“This CIA program has saved American lives, and the lives of people in other countries,” Bush said. “I have one test for this legislation: The intelligence community must be able to tell me that the bill Congress sends to my desk will allow this vital program to continue.”
The full Senate will take up the issue as early as next week. If the chamber adopts the language favored by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the House and Senate would then need to reconcile their differences in a conference committee.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said negotiations were ongoing with the Senate. She added, “It may be that we have to part ways for now and then come back together in a conference.”
Limited time remains for debate as Congress will recess within a few weeks to allow lawmakers to campaign for re-election.
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