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Why Did Terror Tribunal Rules Take So Long?

By Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, a first-term conservative Republican from South Carolina, has been at the core of protracted disagreement between President Bush and Republican senators over U.S. treatment of captured terrorists. He is seen by President Bush's aides as a political opportunist. He sees himself choosing principle over expediency. But the real story may be the Bush administration's failure of governance.

The question is why the tentative agreement reached Thursday by the White House with Sens. John Warner, John McCain and Graham, Republican members of the Armed Services Committee, could not have been achieved sooner. The senators complained the administration was slow sending up legislation needed for military trials of enemy terrorists after the Supreme Court struck down the U.S. tribunal system. It took an embarrassing intraparty quarrel to spawn compromise.

Such Republican disarray seven weeks before difficult midterm elections raises doubts of how much the Bush team has learned over six years. The terrorist tribunal dispute saw the president take a hard, no-compromise line, appearing to lose his temper publicly. With support in his own party disintegrating, the president had to compromise last week and seemed in retreat.

Bush aides bridle at suggestions they did not seek compromise with the dissenting senators after the June 29 Supreme Court decision ruling out the present process. Administration officials conferred with McCain and Graham July 1, and held at least 10 more meetings during July.

The White House believed Graham was on board. Bush aides cite his comments at an Aug. 2 Senate hearing: "I'm very pleased with the collaborative process," adding, "You've reached out to me and others, and to the legal community in the military." To the president's advisers, Graham jumped overboard because he wanted to be attorney general in a McCain Cabinet.

In fact, McCain and Graham traveled to the same destination from different directions. McCain, a tortured prisoner-of-war, did not want to redefine the Geneva Convention's treatment of POWs. Graham, with 22 years' experience as a reserve Air Force lawyer, represented the view of judge advocate generals that terrorist defendants cannot be totally denied access to evidence. Warner, scheduled next year to hand his Armed Services chairmanship to McCain under term limits, supported the two dissenters.

Contending that his position had nothing to do with seeking future office, Graham told me: "I was not going to let this event define me for the rest of my life. I like being a senator, but not to that extent."

Administration consultations with Graham ended when Congress recessed for August. All month long, Graham pestered the White House for a draft of legislation mandated by the Supreme Court -- to no avail. Bush's proposal finally arrived after Labor Day, with no inclination to negotiate. Senators trace the hard line to Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington. Whatever its source, Bush tried to force through his plan without change.

Encouraged by a 52 to 8 House Armed Services Committee vote for his plan, Bush on Sept. 14 went to Capitol Hill to exhort House Republicans. In a press conference the next day, he riled at questioning by NBC's David Gregory: "David, you can ask every hypothetical question you want. . . . If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, . . . the program [interrogating terrorist suspects] is not going forward."

But opposition grew. Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, a conservative Republican and reserve Army officer who was a legal adviser to a 1990 Persian Gulf POW camp, expressed misgivings to Bush during his House visit. The House Judiciary Committee voted against the president. In an unanswered letter of Sept. 15, Graham asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "would we object" if a captured CIA paramilitary operative were put on trial by the Iranian government and denied access to evidence.

The president's hard line was breached when Bush's first secretary of state, Colin Powell, supported the Republican dissenters. Negotiations between Graham and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for a compromise actually began in the green room at CBS preceding "Face the Nation" Sept. 17. Why that process had not begun weeks earlier is something for the Bush team to ponder.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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