How 3 G.O.P. Veterans Stalled Bush Detainee Bill
By CARL HULSE, KATE ZERNIKE and SHERYL GAY STOLBERG | September 17, 2006
WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 — Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham cornered their partner, Senator John W. Warner, on the Senate floor late Wednesday afternoon.
Mr. Warner, the courtly Virginian who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had been trying for weeks to quietly work out the three Republicans’ differences with the Bush administration’s proposal to bring terrorism suspects to trial. But Senators McCain, of Arizona, and Graham, of South Carolina, who are on the committee with Mr. Warner, convinced him that the time for negotiation was over.
The three senators, all military veterans, marched off to an impromptu news conference to lay out their deep objections to the Bush legislation. Mr. Warner then personally broke the news to Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, and the next day the Armed Services Committee voted to approve a firm legislative rebuke to the president’s plan to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions.
It was a stinging defeat for the White House, not least because the views of Mr. Warner, a former Navy secretary, carry particular weight. With a long history of ties to the military, Mr. Warner, 79, has a reputation as an accurate gauge to views that senior officers are reluctant to express in public. Notably, in breaking ranks with the White House, Mr. Warner was joined by Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a rare public breach with the administration he served as secretary of state.
As Mr. Warner left his Senate office on Friday afternoon, he carried a briefcase of material to prepare for a potential legislative showdown in the coming days. At stake, he said, was more than the fate of “these 20-odd individuals,” a reference to the high-level terrorism suspects awaiting possible trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“It’s how America’s going to be perceived in the world, how we’re going to continue the war against terror,” Mr. Warner said.
Then he showed off the motto on his necktie: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Ronald Reagan had a similar tie, Mr. Warner said, and had given him a copy.
Democrats and Republicans alike had assumed that Mr. Warner, a smooth negotiator not given to public confrontation, would relent to the administration, especially considering the importance Republicans had placed on passing the legislation as midterm elections approached.
The thinking was that Mr. McCain, who was tortured as a Vietnam prisoner of war, would not budge, nor would Mr. Graham, a military lawyer and zealous guardian of military standards. That left Mr. Warner as the best potential target for the White House. But as he considered the consequences of the proposal, the chairman decided to stick to his guns, saying he believed the nation’s reputation was at stake.
“He is a man of the Senate,” said Mr. Graham, arguing that Mr. Warner’s stance spoke volumes because it went against his nature to have so visible a conflict. “He is also a military man and has thought long and hard about this.”
Mr. Bush seems equally determined to win provisions he says are needed to interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects. He and his allies are ratcheting up pressure on Senate Republicans who support alternate rules adopted this week by the Armed Services Committee. Mr. Warner, like his two colleagues, has a network of high-ranking current and retired military officers who provide regular guidance and support. While he has been consulting them privately, some are expected to weigh in publicly in the days ahead. One aide said on Saturday that the number of Senate Republicans behind the three senators was widening beyond the 8 or 10 they had anticipated, with lawmakers — heavily influenced by Mr. Powell’s stance — preparing to soon go public with their views.
In interviews, two senior Bush administration officials acknowledged that the White House had underestimated the depth of opposition Mr. Bush’s proposal would provoke. They also said they had focused mostly on gaining Mr. Graham’s support and mistakenly believed they had it, based on statements he made about the Geneva Conventions in Senate hearings. A Republican senator separately described the clash between the White House and Mr. Warner’s group as “a train wreck.”
The administration officials and the Republican senator were granted anonymity because they would not openly discuss negotiations between the White House and Congress.
Mr. Warner’s convictions about how military trials should proceed appear to stem largely from his personal experience, beginning with his Navy service in World War II. Hanging with the photographs on his office wall is a worn, small placard that his mother displayed on the door of their Washington home from 1944 to 1946: “There’s a Man from this family in the Navy.”
“I’m a man that’s been through a lot,” Mr. Warner said, recounting his days as secretary of the Navy in the early 1970’s when he was personally confronted with issues of military prisoners. “I mean, I’ve been through this before.”
Mr. Graham has similarly drawn on his legal and military background in challenging the White House. “The Geneva Convention means more to me than the average person,” he said. He said “some people” considered the conventions “a waste of time, but I know they have been helpful.”
Mr. Graham acknowledged that the political battle was bruising, but said he could not tolerate a change in the American interpretation of the conventions if it meant short-term benefits at long-term costs.
“President Bush is very sincere in wanting the tools he needs to fight the war on terror,” Mr. Graham said in an interview. “I don’t want the tools they are given to become clubs to be used against our people.”
In a letter sent Friday to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, Mr. Graham also took issue with a provision of the administration’s approach that would allow the use of secret evidence in trials of terrorism suspects.
"Where in American jurisprudence do you find support for the concept that a person accused can be tried and convicted on evidence which that person has no opportunity to see, confront or rebut?” Mr. Graham wrote. The bonds between Mr. Warner, Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham were forged in difficult times. Mr. Warner and Mr. McCain first met when Mr. Warner was the Navy secretary and Mr. McCain was returning to his Navy career after his captivity. Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham became close during the 2000 primaries in South Carolina, when Mr. McCain came under attack from Bush Republicans. They teamed up last year in forcing the White House to accept a ban on torture.
After the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s earlier plan for military tribunals in June, they joined with top military lawyers to form the chief bulwark against what they said were efforts to undermine military law and the 60-year-old protections of the Geneva Conventions.
“It’s not a question of defiance or intransigence, it’s the way we’ve worked,” Mr. Warner said. “We’ve continued to indicate a willingness to look at situations — is there a bridge that we can build between certain provisions? And our core principles are very rooted in the three of us.”
Mr. Graham added, “There are three branches of government, not one.”
Mr. Warner sought to serve as a counterbalance to the occasionally combative Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham during a turbulent week that fractured the Republican majority on its signature issue, national security. It saw Mr. Powell enlisting with the three Republicans against Mr. Bush, and left Mr. Graham chewing out General Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A director, in a closed meeting.
In the Senate, Mr. Warner is known for hearing out colleagues and trying to find consensus.
“John Warner is always very gracious,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who is also on the Armed Services Committee and sided with Senators Warner, McCain and Graham. “He is patient and he is thoughtful. And people sometimes mistake that for uncertainty about his position.”
Administration officials said they had focused on Mr. Warner as the key to overcoming Republican opposition in the Senate. When he raised a question with General Hayden about the State Department’s view on the matter, Mr. Warner received a phone call within hours from Ms. Rice.
Ms. Rice followed up with a letter to Mr. Warner, which administration officials distributed on Capitol Hill on Thursday to counter the letter from Mr. Powell, which had objected to the administration’s plan to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
But once it became clear that Mr. Warner was dug in, the administration began setting its sights on other senators, inviting them to the White House. On Friday afternoon, Mr. Frist’s office arranged a conference call between staff members for Senate Republicans and Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, to emphasize talking points for making the administration’s case on Capitol Hill.
As the fight swirled around him last week, Mr. Warner got a call from his grandson, Nicholas, a boarding school student who was an intern in his office this summer, asking what all the fuss on television was about.
“I took the time to try to explain it to him,” Mr. Warner said. “That’s one of the jobs we have to do, explain to the American people.” He added: “Neither McCain nor Graham nor I nor anybody wants to tie the hands of the intelligence community.”