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Tentative Accord on Interrogations

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 22, 2006


The White House and a group of high-ranking Republican senators appear to have resolved the most contentious issues blocking new legislation that would provide for tough questioning of terrorism suspects (WashPost). On Thursday the two sides reached a tentative agreement (WSJ) on legislation that would allow the president a dominant role in deciding which interrogation methods are permitted by Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions. The White House previously wanted to clarify “vague” wording in Article Three, which codifies that all detainees be provided with humane treatment, as well as redefine U.S. obligations to parts of the treaty. This new Backgrounder outlines the row over the Geneva Conventions.

The debate in Washington transcends political and legal arguments. Opponents of the president’s bill, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, say it will damage America’s moral standing in the world. Others, like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), worry about reciprocity and the treatment of U.S. troops in foreign custody. If Iran captures an American soldier and the U.S. rejiggers the treaty on POW treatment to allow techniques like water boarding, what’s preventing Tehran from doing the same? Meanwhile, legal experts question the usefulness of evidence obtained by coercion.

The White House disagrees. “This program has saved innocent lives,” President Bush told a news conference dominated by the issue last Friday, adding that intelligence gleaned from captured terrorist suspects has prevented terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Further, he argues, these detainees are unlawful combatants who target civilians and therefore are not privy to Geneva Conventions protections. Conservative voices like the Wall Street Journal editorial page say Common Article Three was originally conceived to only apply to armed disputes, not international conflicts like the war on terror. The vagueness of the law, they say, opens up CIA interrogators and U.S. troops in the field to accusations of war crimes and lawsuits in international courts.

The debate over the Geneva Conventions, set in motion by President Bush’s September 7 speech on terror suspects, occurs at a time of heightened political activity in Washington. But for the moment, it has exposed more rifts among Republicans than between Republicans and Democrats. Senators McCain, John Warner (R-VA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), all of whom have military backgrounds, have led a minor rebellion against their own party leaders only weeks before crucial midterm elections (CSMonitor). McCain, moreover, is widely believed to be seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008. Both sides hope to reach a consensus before the November 7 recess.

The backdrop of the current debate is framed by the Supreme Court’s July 2006 Hamdan decision, which states that terror suspects should be protected under the Geneva Conventions and cannot be tried by secret military tribunals. On the issue of military commissions, there are two strategies at play, says John Bickers of Northern Kentucky University: the “untouchables” strategy, whereby government forces find “small fish” to fry and interrogate, which leads to the capture of bigger fish; and the Nuremberg model, whereby “big fish” terrorist suspects are tried out in the open. Elisa Massimino, the Washington Director of Human Rights First, worries secret military commissions, besides being in violation of the Geneva Conventions, may be “an invitation to more Abu Ghraibs.”

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