McCain clashes with Bush on detainees

The White House’s opposition to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) legislation on detainee treatment is the first high-profile dispute between the administration and the popular senator since the November election.

The policy clash could escalate in the coming months because McCain — a naval aviator in the Vietnam conflict who was shot down and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war — is unlikely to back down. McCain has often been at odds with the White House on major domestic-policy initiatives such as energy, Medicare prescription drugs and climate change.

The White House threatened to veto the 2006 defense authorization bill if it contains legislation that would regulate detainee treatment, saying that the regulation would undermine the president’s authority and his ability to conduct the war on terrorism.

Despite the controversial treatment of detainees at the military’s facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the White House has been lobbying against legislation that would bar the U.S. military from engaging in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees and from using interrogation methods not included in the Army field manuals.

But that is exactly what McCain wants Congress to pass.

“This is deeper than just politics,” said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Having been a prisoner of war has “defined [McCain’s] political career,” she said.

“There has always been a rift between McCain and Bush,” said Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia. “No doubt that Bush is still grateful for the aid McCain gave him at a point when the president was rather weak [in 2004].”

“My guess is that they will probably work it out,” Sabato said. “This is just one more in a long list of disagreements,” he said. However, he pointed out that if McCain decides to run in 2008 the issue of detainee treatment could be a plus point with him at a time when public support for the war is waning. “If Iraq continues to become unpopular, that development may help McCain,” he said.

“It is unusual for us to see Republicans disagree with one another,” said Sara Binder, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution. “My sense is that this is in part about McCain but larger than McCain and his agenda,” she said.

Eileen McMenamin, McCain’s spokeswoman, said that she does not consider the senator’s difference with the White House a major dispute, considering that there has been only one meeting between the White House and the three senators.

On Monday, McCain introduced an amendment that would establish the Army field manual on interrogation as the standard throughout the Department of Defense (DoD).

“The amendment is written so that the executive branch can change the army field manual at any time so that there is a uniform standard across the DoD,” one of McCain’s staff members said. “Each time that the department has diverged from using it, we got ourselves in a big whole mess.” A number of former intelligence officers have expressed their support for the amendment in a letter they sent to McCain on Friday.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Warner (R-Va.) and McCain were initially working on the detainee bill. But since Vice President Cheney met with them Thursday to dissuade them from crafting the legislation, the three have taken separate approaches. Warner, McCain, Graham and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced an amendment that would prohibit “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.

“All we are doing [with the Warner-McCain-Graham-Collins bill] is closing a loophole that has recently been opened by the Justice Department,” the McCain staff member said.

Graham introduced a separate amendment that would allow the Pentagon to determine enemy combatants’ status and use military tribunals to prosecute them.

The defense bill could be pushed back to September, leaving the door open for more than a month of debate on Guantanamo issues. According to the McCain aide, most Democrats will support the Guantanamo amendments and at least 10 Republicans have expressed support. The staffer refused to name them.

The White House said that its position did not change since July 21st when the Office of Management and Budget issued a statement of administration policy opposing any legislation that would “restrict the President’s authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bring terrorists to justice.”