WASHINGTON -- President Bush escalated a brawl with rebellious senators within his own party yesterday over his proposal to allow harsh interrogation of terrorism detainees, warning that the outcome of the debate "really is going to define whether or not we can protect ourselves."
At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, the president, in unusually forceful language, urged members of Congress to approve his plan for interrogating detainees and trying them before military commissions. He said that an intelligence program that has obtained valuable information from terrorists could not continue without the legislation.
Four Republican senators, three of whom have long experience in the military, provided the critical votes Thursday that blocked Bush's proposal in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Congress has got a decision to make: Do you want the program to go forward, or not?" Bush asked. "I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America." He warned that "time's running out" for Congress to pass his plan before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November elections.
Bush's pointed declarations underscored the gap that is widening between the White House and the rebelling Republican senators. In particular, they emphasized the president's differences with Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, who has opposed Bush's interrogation policy in the past.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, defended his decision to oppose Bush's interrogation plan and instead to back one that places more limits on what intelligence officials may do when questioning detainees.
The president's plan, McCain said in a statement, would weaken Geneva Convention protections for detainees and would prompt other nations to do the same, putting "our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars." This course, he cautioned, "risks our reputation, our moral standing and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country."
At the center of the dispute is the interpretation of a key section of the Geneva Conventions, known as Common Article 3. The treaty outlines the treatment that participants in the pact agree to provide to combatants. The article in question outlaws torture as well as "affronts to personal dignity."
Bush said that language was vague, and that another prohibition, against "outrages upon human dignity," was "wide open to interpretation."
McCain and the senators siding with him, who include many Democrats, say that Congress should not unilaterally set a definition of the Geneva Convention language.
These senators say Congress can authorize a set of interrogation tools that allow the terrorist-interrogation program to continue, but which do not alter international law. That, they say, could put U.S. personnel in danger if they are captured by nations that feel free to interpret the Geneva Conventions in new ways.
James Gerstenzang and Noam N. Levey write for the Los Angeles Times.