Senate Republicans push military prison oversight

Three Senate Republicans — a powerful chairman, a former POW and an ex-military prosecutor — are looking to revamp the system of detaining, trying and interrogating military detainees.

Sens. John Warner (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) plan to craft legislation that would have the effect of taking some control over those issues away from the executive branch — namely the Pentagon — and assert a new level of congressional oversight and decisionmaking power.

It is too early to tell if the White House would be onboard with such an effort. Previous congressional efforts to minimize the Pentagon’s control, most recently on the 2004 intelligence-reform bill, have met with some resistance from administration officials.

However, opposing the Warner-McCain-Graham bill would be politically difficult. Several influential Republicans and Democrats said the legislation has a significant chance of moving, principally because of the personal and political backgrounds of the three sponsors. All are Republicans who served in the military and supported the war in Iraq.

Warner is considered a senior statesman on military matters and recently questioned President Bush about the war at a White House meeting with Senate Republicans. McCain is a national spokesman on defense and security issues and was a key supporter of Bush’s reelection. And Graham has become a respected critic of the administration on military matters, even as he has asked probing questions of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at Senate hearings.

The trio’s move comes as reports of military abuses at the military’s prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have become a major diplomatic problem for the United States. Reports of detainee abuse led to riots overseas as top military officials have testified that the insurgents in Iraq have maintained their strength and could continue their fight for several years.

The senators met Tuesday and are asking their staffs to develop detailed legislative language. The bill could be offered to a defense authorization bill, or the senators could try to move it in another fashion this summer.

“The three of us are trying to work out a very balanced and needed set of provisions,” Warner said, “to try and make sure we don’t see a repetition of what occurred these last several years.” He acknowledged that many of the enemies facing the United States represent a “new framework of belligerence” and pledged to consult with the administration as he fashioned new oversight legislation. “But in the end, I think Congress has a responsibility, and we’re going to live up to it.”

McCain described the meetings as in the “embryonic stage.”

Graham, an Air Force prosecutor and Air Force National Guard colonel who served during the first Gulf War, cited recent federal rulings on U.S. detainee policies. “They’ve cried out for congressional involvement,” he said. “I really do believe it would be best for all of us to get Congress brought in.”

“Without a statute,” he said, “you lose congressional buy-in. It would improve our image in the world if Congress got involved and made the system better.”

Among the specific legislative proposals Graham suggested were having Congress define enemy combatant status using precise legislative language. He also said there should be a statutory solution to what he called the “military tribunal problem.” Graham added that Congress should lay out how and when detainees would be entitled to receive hearings and trials.

“You’ve got to have a system where people can challenge their enemy combatant status,” he said.

Graham said he thought the courts would give “great deference” to Congress, noting that Justice Antonin Scalia has suggested that Congress become more involved in court opinions on the subject.

“I think that would help the war on terror,” Graham said. “It would help the legal situation [at Guantanamo]. It would help clear up the image of the place.”

But in a sign of the limits of how far the Republicans intend to go, Graham defended some interrogation practices employed at Guantanamo. “Psychological and physical stress are appropriate techniques as long as they stay within the boundaries of international norms and humane treatment,” he said.

Graham said he didn’t know whether the legislation would be offered as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which is awaiting Senate floor consideration. He has said he wants to get the language to be developed by next month.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told The Hill that he hopes to take up the $442 billion defense bill for 2006 in the “next block” of legislative time in July but that he couldn’t yet commit to it because of other matters on the agenda. He said he was not familiar with Warner, McCain and Graham’s emerging proposal but acknowledged that passage of the defense bill could be difficult and time-consuming.

It is unclear whether the administration would welcome new oversight proposals or view them as an intrusion. If it fails to embrace them, however, it may have to fend off other approaches. Democrats are preparing a raft of amendments to the defense measure.

“I think there’s a golden opportunity on the defense authorization to raise these issues,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), an Armed Services Committee member and fierce critic of Pentagon policy.

He said Democrats had already begun working on amendments on detainee rights and whether the Geneva Conventions should apply to prisoners detained overseas. Kennedy said the Democrats planned to consult with Republicans, mentioning Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).