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Senate, White House Reach Compromise on Detainee Rights

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

A fractious Republican rebellion against the White House appears to be over. GOP senators at odds with a White House plan for interrogating and trying suspected terrorists say the two sides reached a deal late yesterday. It allows both the questioning and the military trials of terror suspects to go forward. The senators who forced the negotiations said the Bush administration made major concessions.

NPR's David Welna traveled with the president yesterday and has this report.

DAVID WELNA: At a swank Orlando hotel the president interrupted what had been a day spent raising money in Florida for Republican candidates for some pressing official business. All afternoon reports from Washington spoke of a deal between the White House and the trio of military veteran Republican senators who had been defying the president for a week. The president's aides would not confirm the deal, leaving that moment to Mr. Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm pleased to say that this agreement preserves the most single, most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets.

WELNA: The president gave no details about just what had been worked out other than to say the interrogation program he last week threatened to kill could now go forward.

Back at the Capitol, the former prisoner of war who spearheaded opposition on the issue sounded magnanimous. Arizona Republican John McCain declared there were no losers in this deal, only winners.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Let me just say the agreement that we've entered into gives the president the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror and bring these evil people to justice. I also believe that it's consistent with the standards under the Detainee Treatment Act, and there is no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved.

WELNA: And that's because the deal does not redefine the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3, as the White House had sought to do. Instead, it spells out what kind of mistreatment would make an interrogator liable for prosecution under the War Crimes Act. That's what McCain, Armed Services Committee Chair John Warner and South Carolina Air Force Reservist Lindsey Graham had sought. Graham had previously railed against using this legislation to score political points before the midterm elections, and he did so again yesterday.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I am very pleased that long-term policy considerations trumped the political moment; that the Senate and the House and the president are starting to think long-term about how what we do today will not only affect our troops in the next war and the war thereafter but it really will define who America is in 2006.

WELNA: The deal also eliminates another item the White House wanted, a bar to defendants seeing classified evidence that's used against them. This clearly did not sit well with House Armed Services Committee Chair Duncan Hunter, who defied the mood of compromise and refused to endorse the Senate deal.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): Our work in the House is not over yet. I think we're very close. We still have a - we are concerned most strongly with the utilization of classified information and utilization of that information to obtain convictions in this new type of war against a new type of enemy.

WELNA: Hunter said he'd prefer to allow the use of secret evidence when necessary. But Lindsey Graham gently reminded him that what goes around comes around.

Sen. GRAHAM: We're going to be able to protect classified information, Mr. Chairman from the House. We're going to be able to bring charges against people while the war is still going on. But we're going to do it in a way that won't come back to haunt us if our troops fall into enemy hands in the next war, which will surely be forthcoming unless humanity changes.

WELNA: So it would appear, at least at first blush, that the renegade senators had their way: The White House backed down on its plan for military tribunals and interrogations. But details are still sketchy and intense talks are bound to continue before the actual language of legislation is brought to the Senate floor, most likely next week.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.