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Four GOP Senators Support Detainee Plan Bush Opposes

By Kate Zernike
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

On a frantic day of Republican infighting, the Senate Armed Services Committee defied President Bush on Thursday as four Republicans joined Democrats in approving a plan for the trial and interrogation of terror suspects that the White House has rejected.

The Republican rebellion was led by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the committee chairman, with backing from Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine. The White House had warned that their legislation would leave the United States no option but to shut down a CIA program to interrogate high-level terror suspects.

The vote came despite an all-out effort by the White House to win support for its own approach, which provides far fewer protections for detainees. Bush himself traveled to Capitol Hill with Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday morning, and the administration released a brief letter in which the top lawyers for the military branches said they did not object to the White House proposal to redefine a key provision of the Geneva Conventions.

But former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sided with the senators, saying in a letter that Bush’s plan to redefine the Geneva Conventions would encourage the world to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism” and “put our own troops at risk.”

Powell’s statement amounted to a rare public breach with the White House he served, but reflected his opposition while in office to the administration’s assertions that the war against al-Qaida should not be bound by the Geneva Conventions.

The White House made clear that it would fight on despite the Republican rebellion, with Bush saying that he would “resist any bill” that did not provide a legal basis for the CIA to continue to employ what Bush has called “alternative interrogation practices” for terror suspects.

The key dispute between the White House and the Senate Republicans revolves around a provision known as Common Article 3, which prohibits inhumane treatment of combatants seized during wartime. General Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, has argued that the article’s prohibition against “outrages upon personal dignity” must be clarified so that troops and CIA personnel know what is permissible in the interrogation of terror suspects.

But Warner, McCain, and Graham say the Bush proposal would send a signal that the United States has abandoned its commitment to human rights, and invite other nations to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions as they see fit, eliminating protections for U.S. troops seized in future conflicts.

The three senators dismissed the letter from the military lawyers, saying they had “questions” about whether it amounted to an authentic endorsement of the White House bill. They said they put more weight on extensive public testimony in which the lawyers raised doubts about the Bush plan.

Some military officials briefed on the military lawyers’ position also disputed the notion that the lawyers had reversed course. They said the lawyers agreed to sign a letter at a meeting on Wednesday after discussing the language over several hours.