Bush argues anew for legislation covering interrogation of terrorism suspects

Friday, September 15th 2006, 8:43 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Facing a GOP revolt in the Senate, President Bush urged Congress on Friday to join in backing legislation to spell out strategies for interrogating and trying terror suspects, saying ``the enemy wants to attack us again.''

``Time is running out,'' Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference. ``Congress needs to act wisely and promptly.''

Bush denied the U.S. might lose the moral high ground in the war on terror in the eyes of world opinion, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested.

``It's unacceptable to think there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective,'' said Bush, growing animated as he spoke.

On Iraq, Bush said he regretted U.S. troop levels are rising instead of falling. He blamed it on the recent surge in sectarian violence.

``We all want the troops to come home as quickly as possible,'' he said. But he said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, needed reinforcements ``to help the Iraqis achieve their objective.''

``And that's the way I will continue to conduct the war. I'll listen to the generals,'' Bush said. ``Maybe it's not the politically expedient thing to do. But you can't make decisions based on politics about how to win a war.''

On other subjects, Bush:

_ All but acknowledged a top domestic priority _ immigration law overhaul _ was essentially dead for now amid disputes on Capitol Hill. When will there be action? ``I don't know the timetable...as soon as possible is what I'd like to see done.''

_ Said he will signal at the United Nations next week firm U.S. opposition to further concessions to Iran. The U.S. won't sit down with Iranians until they suspend nuclear enrichment and ``I meant what I said.'' He said he won't meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while both are in New York.

_ Cited a ``level of frustration'' with the United Nations, both on dealing with the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and with spending its money wisely. He suggested a new, tougher U.N. resolution on Darfur _ one that would send United Nations peacekeepers in even without the consent of Sudan's government.

_ Responded, ``I wouldn't exactly put it that way'' when asked if he agreed with comments by House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that Democrats ``are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.'' But, Bush said, ``there's a difference in attitude'' between Republicans and Democrats.

Bush's news conference came a day after four Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee broke with the administration and joined Democrats in approving a bill assuring that foreign terrorism suspects would be accorded Geneva Convention protections. Bush claims that measure would compromise the war on terrorism.

He is urging the Senate to pass a bill more like a House-passed one that would allow his administration to continue holding and trying terror suspects before military tribunals and to give interrogators more leeway.

Bush said he would work with Congress but stood firm on his demands.

``Unfortunately the recent Supreme Court decision put the future of this program in question. ... We need this legislation to save it.''

The high court earlier this year struck down Bush's current arrangement for holding detainees held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush said that it was vital to clarify the law to protect intelligence professionals who are called on to question detainees to obtain vital information. He called it an important debate that ``defines whether or not we can protect ourselves. Congress has got a decision to make.''

Democrats were quick to respond.

``When conservative military men like John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell stand up to the president, it shows how wrong and isolated the White House is,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Warner, R-Va., a former Navy secretary, is chairman of the Armed Services Committee. McCain and Graham are members. McCain is a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years in enemy captivity during the Vietnam War. Graham is a former Air Force Reserve judge. Powell is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he supports the McCain approach because it would be less likely to be challenged by the Supreme Court as unlawful and violating U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention.

He said he voted in committee for the House-administration position to ``move the process along,'' but said he will attempt to amend it when the House votes next week. ``I don't want to give any terrorist a free pass or get-out-of-jail-free card,'' Skelton said.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who supports the president's plan, said he hoped Congress could reach agreement ``in a way where the interrogation of terrorist detainees can continue.''

Meanwhile, foreign ministers of the European Union on Friday called on the United States to respect international law in its handling of terror suspects after Bush acknowledged the U.S. had run secret prisons abroad.

``We reiterate that in combatting terrorism, human rights and human standards have to be maintained,'' said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, speaking on behalf of the 25 EU ministers.

The dissident group led by McCain _ and backed by Powell, Bush's first-term secretary of state _ said Bush's approach would jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops.

Powell said Bush's proposal would redefine the Geneva Conventions and encourage the world to ``doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism'' and ``put our own troops at risk.''

But, Bush told reporters, ``We must...provide our military and intelligence professionals with the tools they need to protect our country from another attack. And the reason they need those tools is because the enemy wants to attack us again.''

It was Bush's first news conference since Aug. 21, when he said the Iraq war was ``straining the psyche of our country'' but that leaving now would be a disaster.

Bush has made the struggle against terrorism and the war in Iraq the top issues in the November elections, hoping to persuade voters that Republicans are better than Democrats at protecting the country.

Bush's voice rose and he chopped the air with his right hand several times as he spoke on Iraq. He denied anew that the surge in sectarian violence meant a civil war.