Did the GOP give in to the president on torture?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 22 2006 5:08 AM

Compromised?

Nearly everyone leads with the tentative deal between the White House and dissident Senate Republicans on the interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists. (Mahmoud Abbas' promise to recognize Israel tops the Wall Street Journal's online newsbox.) The compromise legislation, which clarifies acceptable questioning techniques and outlines military commission procedures, seems likely to pass. With a major GOP rift apparently closed, the papers play up the unity-and-goodwill theme—the WSJ's quote from Sen. John McCain is typical: "We're all winners because we've been able to come to an agreement through a process of negotiations and consensus." But the details—not to mention crowing from the White House—indicate that the administration is walking off with a major victory while allowing the Senate to save face. And by focusing solely on the provisions over which the two sides disagreed, the major papers overlook potentially troubling areas of GOP agreement.

The proposed deal's political significance is obvious: It should allow Congress to head into the fall campaign with a divisive issue resolved, USA Today notes. Details were hammered out Thursday at a lengthy Capitol Hill meeting between administration officials and the Republican opposition's leaders (McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner). The senators had resisted administration efforts to reinterpret the nation's Geneva Conventions obligations regarding the treatment of prisoners. They also were opposed to trials that permitted classified evidence terror detainees would not be allowed to confront.

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On the surface, the senators seem to have beaten back President Bush's efforts. The Los Angeles Times certainly plays it that way, calling the agreement a "major concession" on Bush's part and citing the approval of at least one major human rights group.

But the New York Times explains that while the Bush administration agreed not to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, an international treaty, the senators agreed that the War Crimes Act, a domestic law, should define what constitutes "grave breaches" of the conventions. As for less serious violations of the conventions ("those lying between cruelty and minor abuse," as the Post puts it), the senators agreed Bush should be given the authority to judge the conventions' "meaning and application." (He will have to publish his interpretation, but details remain sketchy.) In short, the deal seems to be redefinition once removed, and the Post indicates that may have been all the McCain side wanted from the beginning. The "biggest hurdle" in negotiations, the paper reports, "was convincing administration officials that lawmakers would never accept language that allowed Bush to appear to be reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions" [emphasis added]. Certainly presidential counselor Dan Bartlett views the "compromise" as one of perception only: "We proposed a more direct approach to bringing clarification. This one is more of the scenic route, but it gets us there," he says in the pages of the NYT.

As for the other main point of contention—secret evidence—the senators made more headway; the Post reports defendants will be allowed to see it in "summary or redacted form." (Of course, the extent of the redaction is critical: "We are sentencing you to death because of evidence you ██████ on ████ with ██████" isn't very helpful.) But the NYT's editorial points out that the administration has begun trying to back out of even this modest commitment.

Examined closely then, the great compromise seems to be a great cave-in. As the Post writes in its editorial, "In effect, the agreement means that U.S. violations of international human rights law can continue as long as Mr. Bush is president, with Congress's tacit assent."

Unfortunately the major papers don't dig into what may prove to be a significant issue with the compromise legislation. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, even before negotiations began, both the administration and its Senate opponents had provisions in their respective bills that would strip detainees of their right to file an application for a writ of habeas corpus. Apparently the goal is turning the prison at Guantanamo Bay back into a legal black hole.

In other front-page news, the NYT and the Post go high with the CDC's new recommendations that an HIV test be part of the routine battery of blood tests offered to all patients. Experts hope the move will lower the number of people who are unaware of their HIV status. It may also decrease the stigma associated with the disease.

USAT, the Post, and the LAT all front Wal-Mart's decision to offer generic drugs for as little as $4 to insured and uninsured patients alike. Sales will begin in Tampa immediately and will expand to states beyond Florida by the end of 2007. The Post says nearly 300 drugs are part of the program, but USAT notices that the number "includes different dosage strengths of the same drugs"; the real list includes fewer than 150. The move may drive down drug costs by putting pressure on other retailers. (Wal-Mart did not say whether it negotiated deals with manufacturers and suppliers.) The LAT notes the news hit the company's drugstore competitors hard.

Danger, Not So Able: The NYT stuffs an update on "Able Danger," the Defense Department program that some claimed had identified 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, before the attacks. Those claims, the paper now reports, have been discredited by the Defense Department's inspector general. Of course the 9/11 commission already dismissed the claims—before the NYT ran a credulous, above-the-fold front pager on them in August 2005. Dearly departed TPer Eric Umansky ripped the story to shreds back then, arguing that papers "should give articles prominence commensurate with the level of confidence they have in the story's sources—obviously." Follow-ups setting the record straight probably deserve even more prominence.

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