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Compromise to be reached on terrorist interrogations

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration and holdout GOP senators expressed confidence yesterday they could reach a compromise on rules for CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Neither the president’s national security aides nor some of the lawmakers who are resisting White House pressure would say how they can reconcile their deep differences after a week of public sparring.

As a result, it is unclear if Congress quickly can pass legislation authorizing aggressive methods against terrorist detainees, as President Bush wants. Congress is likely to adjourn in two weeks for the fall elections.

Bush says CIA personnel should be able to resume tough interrogation techniques to extract information from detainees. Several senators from his own party are standing in the way, seeking changes. They say the United States must adhere strictly to international standards in the Geneva Conventions and that setting harsher ones could put U.S. troops at risk if they are captured.

“We have to hold the moral high ground,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of the Republicans not satisfied with the White House proposal. “We don’t think al-Qaida will ever observe those conventions, but we’re going to be in other wars.”

McCain elaborated later yesterday at a reception in Concord, N.H., warning against breaking with provisions of the Geneva Conventions that protect wartime prisoners. “That’s what we do not want, because Americans would be setting the precedent for changing a treaty that has been untouched by any nation for 57 years,” he said.

A Supreme Court ruling in June essentially said the Geneva Conventions should apply to suspected terrorists in CIA custody. The decision froze the interrogations and eventually led the administration to turn over the last 14 prisoners in CIA custody to the military officials running a prison for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush’s national intelligence director, John Negroponte, said the interrogation program has had “precious little activity of that kind for a number of months now” because of questions about its legality. But, he said, it is important that the program continue.

“It’s provided invaluable information that has saved lives of Americans, and significant plots against our homeland have been disrupted as a result. And, surely, there is a way of finding a way forward that would permit this program to continue and, at the same time, do it in a way that is both respectful of our law and Constitution and our international obligations,” Negroponte said.

But, he added, “I think we’re going to have to wait and see” if a compromise can be reached with McCain and others.

McCain said he is committed to a deal. “I still believe that we’ll be able to work this out to the satisfaction of everybody concerned,” the senator said.

The White House says the existing ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” satisfies U.S. treaty obligations. The senators’ bill is silent on the issue.

Bush’s proposal allows evidence to be held from a defendant if it is classified and allows coerced testimony if deemed reliable. The Senate bill requires a judge to dismiss charges if evidence cannot be shared. It also excludes any testimony obtained by cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

“If it’s seen that our country is trying to redefine the Geneva Convention to meet the needs of the CIA, why can’t every other country redefine the Geneva Convention to meet the needs of their secret police?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another opponent of Bush’s plan. “It would be a disaster.”

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, declined to say what specific techniques, such as waterboarding or prolonged sleep deprivation, would be illegal if Congress did not pass Bush’s proposal.

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