Cheney Working to Block Legislation on Detainees

New York Times

Vice President Dick Cheney is leading a White House lobbying effort to block legislation offered by Republican senators that would regulate the detention, treatment and trials of detainees held by the American military.

In an unusual, 30-minute private meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday night, Mr. Cheney warned three senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee that their legislation would interfere with the president’s authority and his ability to protect Americans against terrorist attacks.

The legislation, which is still being drafted, includes provisions to bar the military from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross; prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees; and use only interrogation techniques authorized in a new Army field manual.

The three Republicans are John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John W. Warner of Virginia, the committee chairman. They have complained that the Pentagon has failed to hold senior officials and military officers responsible for the abuses that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad, and at other detention centers in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The senators could attach their legislation to the $442 billion Pentagon authorization bill for the 2006 fiscal year, which is to be debated on the Senate floor next week. Senate Democrats, led by Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, have said they will offer a competing amendment to establish an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 panel, to investigate detainee abuses and operations.

On Thursday, just before Mr. Cheney’s meeting, the White House warned in a blunt statement that Senate approval of a Republican or Democratic amendment was likely to prompt Mr. Bush’s top advisers to recommend he veto the measure.

Mr. Cheney’s meeting with the senators was first reported on Saturday by The Washington Post.

A spokesman for Mr. Warner, John Ullyot, declined Saturday to comment on the senators’ meeting with Mr. Cheney and said, “the matter continues to be studied,” adding that the Senate could vote on all or some of the provisions next week.

Mr. Cheney’s involvement in the issue illustrates the White House’s level of concern that the Republican bill could pass. Mr. Cheney is president of the Senate, and next to Mr. Bush, he is the administration’s most potent lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Maria Tamburri, a spokeswoman for the White House, said Mr. Cheney’s conversations with members of Congress were private, and she declined to provide any details.

A senior Defense Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly about the matter, said Mr. Cheney took the administration’s lead role because the issue cut across the jurisdictions of several federal agencies, and because he had long been the administration’s chief defender of presidential prerogative.

“There’s a natural tension here between the executive and Congressional branches,” the official said.

According to Senate officials, Mr. McCain is considering introducing four amendments. One would set standards for interrogating military detainees and would limit them to techniques outlined in a new Army field manual. It would not cover the Central Intelligence Agency.

A second provision would require that all detainees held by the military be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross. This measures seeks to prevent the holding of unregistered prisoners, or ghost detainees, in Iraq and Afghanistan and at other military sites.

Mr. McCain is also weighing a provision to prohibit the practice of seizing people and sending them abroad for interrogation. This practice has become the subject of mounting international criticism, as some of the countries involved are known to use torture. It has caused a deepening rift between the United States and some of its strongest allies.

Finally, Mr. McCain’s amendment would bar cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in American custody. This would effectively prohibit not only physical abuse but also practices like placing women’s undergarments on the heads of Muslim male prisoners in an effort to humiliate them.

Mr. Graham, who has expressed some support for the idea of a wide-ranging independent commission to look into detainee abuses, is seeking to define the term “enemy combatant” for detention purposes, and to regulate the military tribunals to be held soon at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Richard W. Stevenson contributed reporting for this article.

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