Bush anti-terror plan edges foward
Updated: 2006-09-20 09:10

WASHINGTON - President Bush's stalled anti-terrorism agenda edged forward Tuesday, with a rebellious House member rewriting her bill on wiretaps more to his liking and maverick Senate Republicans reopening talks over how to handle detainees.

President George W. Bush gestures during a news conference at White House in Washington, September 15, 2006. Bush pledged on Friday to try to work with rebellious members of the U.S. Congress over the treatment of foreign terrorism suspects but warned 'time is running out' to pass legislation. [Reuters]

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., offered to substitute her original bill on giving legal status to Bush's domestic surveillance program with a bill that would grant a key administration request: allow wiretapping on Americans in the event of an "imminent" terrorist attack.

In exchange, the administration would be required to share with Congress more details of the nature of the threat, presumably with the House and Senate Intelligence committees and some congressional leaders.

"Excesses are best prevented when intelligence activities are operated within a framework that controls government power by using checks and balances among the three branches of government," Wilson said in a statement.

The substitute, to be considered Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, represents a possible breakthrough in a bitter, election-season rift between the White House and GOP leaders on one side and Republican lawmakers concerned about Bush's use of executive authority in his war on terror.

While the wiretapping question moved ahead, the second prong of Bush's legislative war agenda - treatment of detainees also showed signs of progress.

The White House and a group of Senate Republicans continued Tuesday to swap proposals on legislation authorizing the interrogation and prosecution of terrorism suspects.

The two sides remained at odds over how to adhere to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and at the same time allow the CIA to conduct effective interrogations.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said "progress was being made in good faith," while Majority Leader Bill Frist said he hoped to vote on a final measure by the end of next week.

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week approved detainee legislation written by Warner, the panel's chairman, and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., but opposed by Bush. The White House has said the committee's bill would put an end to the CIA interrogation program.

Bush's measure would let coerced testimony be presented at terrorism trials but would deny defendants access to classified evidence in them. Bush also favors a narrower interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that would make it harder to prosecute U.S. interrogators for using harsh techniques.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino confirmed Monday that the administration was sending new language to the senators in hopes of reaching an agreement. The revision was expected to address specifically the nation's obligations under the Geneva Conventions, a major sticking point with the three Republicans.

The development came as a key part of Bush's argument on detainees lost some of its edge. In letters obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, two of the service's senior lawyers backed away from a previous assertion that they did not object to the president's plan.

"I believe that approach is not objectionable from a strictly legal perspective" and would not "abrogate" U.S. treaty obligations, Maj. Gen. Jack Rives, the Air Force judge advocate general, said in a letter to Graham.

However, Rives added that while the section would not reduce the nation's commitment to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, "some could perceive it as such."

Maj. Gen. Scott Black, the Army judge advocate general, agreed.

"I believe that further redefinition of Common Article 3 is unnecessary and could be seen as a weakening of our treaty obligations, rather than a reinforcement of the standards," Black wrote in a Sept. 15 letter obtained by the AP.

"This could cause reciprocal action by other signatories, which is particularly problematic while we are at war," Black added.

Support among House moderates for the White House proposal on detainees also was faltering. GOP moderates Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Mike Castle, R-Del., said in a letter to House GOP leaders Tuesday that they support Warner's bill.

Amid the whirl of developments, the prospects for congressional passage of the wiretapping and detainee policies were unclear in the waning week-and-a-half before Congress recesses for the Nov. 6 election. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects Wilson's bill to come to the floor next week. But even if it passes the House, the Senate must churn through three conflicting pieces of legislation on the same matter.

Detainee legislation faces a similar crush in the House and Senate next week.