In a CNN.com article previewing the October 26 edition of CNN's “Broken Government” series, CNN national correspondent John King asserted that, after being primarily deferential to the Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "[t]he Republican-controlled Congress ... is now beginning to challenge the administration about the expanding role of the executive branch." The only example King cited of congressional Republicans' newfound willingness to stand up to the White House was a supposed “compromise” on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, reached after a well-publicized fight between the administration and three Republican senators. However, as Media Matters for America has explained, far from challenging presidential authority, the bill expands it, among other things effectively authorizing the president to detain any noncitizen within the United States or outside its borders, for any reason and for as long as the campaign against terrorism continues.
King's article noted that Bush's actions since September 11, 2001, have led to civil liberties controversies regarding detainee treatment and privacy disputes at libraries. King then wrote, “Bush's broad assertions of presidential power have been challenged in the courts, and most recently in Congress. Lawmakers -- led by leading Republicans -- objected to an administration plan to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions to allow tough treatment of terror detainees. A compromise was reached.”
However, what King asserted as fact is very much in dispute: The purported “compromise” between the administration and Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and John Warner (R-VA) appears to have involved few concessions from the administration, while apparently allowing the president to eliminate almost all independent oversight of the administration's detainee programs. As washingtonpost.com columnist Dan Froomkin wrote in his September 22 online column, “On the central issue of whether the CIA should continue using interrogation methods on suspected terrorists that many say constitute torture, the White House got its way, winning agreement from the 'maverick' Republican senators who had refused to go along with an overt undoing of the Geneva Conventions. The 'compromise'? The Republican senators essentially agreed to look the other way.” According to Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin, “The bottom line is simple: The [Military Commissions Act] preserves rights against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, but it severs these rights from any practical remedy.”
As Froomkin noted, in a September 22 Washington Post article on the deal, a “senior administration official” reportedly said that “Bush essentially got what he asked for in a different formulation that allows both sides to maintain that their concerns were addressed. 'We kind of take the scenic route, but we get there,' the official said.” Further, a September 29 Post article by R. Jeffrey Smith similarly reported that the compromise was reached largely on administration terms:
Written largely, but not completely, on the administration's terms, with passages that give executive branch officials discretion to set details or divert from its protections, the bill is meant to provide what Bush said yesterday are “the tools” needed to handle terrorism suspects U.S. officials hope to capture.
Moreover, as blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon.com's War Room weblog on September 22, the administration's reaction to the compromise suggests that they got what they wanted:
The president got everything he wanted. What he calls the “program” -- and which much of the world calls “torture” -- will continue unabated, arguably even stronger, as a result of this legislative “compromise.” In his celebratory statement Thursday night, the president was absolutely right when he said: “I had a single test for the pending legislation, and that's this: Would the CIA operators tell me whether they could go forward with the program, that is a program to question detainees to be able to get information to protect the American people. I'm pleased to say that this agreement preserves the most single -- most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets.”
The White House's Dan Bartlett put it best, and most accurately, when he said: “We proposed a more direct approach to bringing clarification. This one is more of the scenic route, but it gets us there.” Only the Bush administration could speak of taking a “scenic route” to torture. But Bartlett's description, creepy and chilling though it may be, is not mere spin designed to make a compromising president look triumphant. Bush, in fact, did triumph and did not compromise in any meaningful sense, because the only goal he had -- to ensure that his “alternative interrogation program” would continue -- was fulfilled in its entirety as a result of this “compromise” (with the added bonus that it will even be strengthened by legal authorization from Congress).