Bush defends demands for CIA 'torture' power

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President Bush launched an impassioned counterattack on critics of his proposals to give CIA interrogators a free rein in their treatment of terror suspects yesterday, saying "it's vital that the folks on the front line have the tools necessary to protect the American people". The CIA programme, involving controversial secret camps outside the US, was one of the most important elements in warding off future terrorist strikes, Mr Bush told reporters.

"Were it not for this programme, al-Qa'ida would have succeeded in launching another attack on the American homeland." The President was speaking at a hastily arranged press conference, less than 24 hours after a group of senior Republican senators staged an open revolt against his proposals, voting through on the Armed Services Committee their own bill, providing greater safeguards for detainees.

Mr Bush promised that he would work with both parties to secure "legislation that works". But, on the essential point, he did not yield an inch. The main criterion was whether the CIA believed that what emerged from Congress would permit them to do their job.

"We need to be able to question these people," he said. But current standards, as set out by Article Three of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, were "so vague" that interrogators could not do their jobs without risking prosecution for war crimes. "I don't believe Americans want that," he said.

He also urged lawmakers to act swiftly to pass a bill authorising the warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency - also vital for the protection of the country, Mr Bush argued.

Criticism of the White House policy on detainees extends far beyond Wednesday's group of Senate rebels - who include John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, front runner for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination who endured torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Colin Powell broke a long silence this week since stepping down as Secretary of State to warn that Mr Bush's approach harmed America's image in the world and increased the risks for captured American soldiers. Gen John Vessey, like Gen Powell a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also wrote to Mr McCain saying the US had to uphold its own values, whatever the enemy's behaviour.

At the same time The Washington Post - usually not unsympathetic to Mr Bush's "war on terror" - condemned his personal lobbying of Congress.

"A Defining Moment for America," it wrote. "The President goes to Capitol Hill to lobby for torture." Of course, Mr Bush didn't say so explicitly, but chose to hide behind the euphemism of "an alternative set of procedures", The Post said in an editorial.

Also at issue are the trials of detainees. A Supreme Court ruling in June forced Mr Bush to seek ratification by Congress for a new system of military tribunals.

However, the amended legislation would still allow the use of evidence obtained under coercion and bar defendants from hearing some of the evidence against them, even when they are on trial for their lives. Military prosecutors past and present, lawyers and rights groups have denounced the proposals as being against basic norms of international law.

Unless the row is resolved, Republicans may have a hard job of persuading Americans that they are the party best able to deal with terrorism - the issue on which its hopes of avoiding defeat in November largely depend. As their opponents publicly quarrel, Democrats have remained quiet, watching the spectacle with undisguised glee.