Skip to main content


Return to Transcripts main page


Bush Defends Military Tribunals for Suspected Terrorists

Aired September 15, 2006 - 12:13   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, ladies and gentlemen, you've just heard President George Bush talking about, at least at the beginning, anyway, the issue that we had suspected he would talk about, and that is certainly the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, talking about the bill for detention and trial of foreign terrorism suspects. Talked a lot about terrorist plots that had been foiled because of the information, the CIA program that got the information that he believes they needed in order to foil those attempts.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And then, as we expected, the news conference moved into a whole bunch of different areas. Just a lot to get to and a lot to talk about. And we've got a number of people who are standing by to sort of break down what was heard in that news conference.

David Gergen is standing by. Suzanne Malveaux at the White House for us. Jeffrey Toobin and Bill Schneider as well.

COLLINS: All right.

We want to immediately get to David Gergen, who is with us today, a veteran Washington insider, has served as the White House adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

And that is why, sir, we always like to see you.

First question for you automatically, I think, would be, did he change any minds? He's got four Senate Republicans who are against this idea, his form of this revision to the Geneva Conventions, and a host of Democrats.

Did he change their minds with that speech?

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I doubt it, but he certainly came out swinging. He was combative. Indeed, he was belligerent. It's rare -- he almost had this pent-up anger that one sensed about him.

I don't think it changed the minds. You know, John Warner and John McCain and the other allies up there, they are pretty strong, tough, and, indeed, can be stubborn people, too. I don't think he's changed their minds.

What he has done is raised the heat. You know, if they can't see the light, make them feel the heat. And so, they will, I think, get letters and calls from a variety of Republican constituents around the country, and maybe it will soften them up.

But I don't think he came to grips very well with the real arguments, the underlying arguments. He didn't acknowledge that there are points -- they're worried that in setting standards we're actually going to water down the Geneva Conventions in ways that not only affect our moral stature in the world but really could affect the lives of our own soldiers when they are captured.

That's the point that David Gregory was trying to make, perhaps unartfully as he fumbled with his microphone. But, nonetheless, that is a point that has been raised not just by the senators and not just by Colin Powell, it's being raised by a lot of military lawyers.

People in U.S. military uniform who are in the judge advocate general corps and people who are retired are saying, we really oppose the legislation that's being proposed by the president. We think the program he's talking about can go forward. Let's not lower the standards and let's not have trials.

They're really worried that if there are trials in which somebody were detained, essentially condemned to death without seeing the evidence, that same thing can happen to an American down the road. And John McCain, a former POW, you know, thinks long and hard about things like that. And that's the reason he's opposed.

I think the president -- I was surprised how tough he was. I would think he -- I thought he would come out and say, I really want to work with these people, they've got legitimate points view that we all need to understand. I've got my point of view. Let's sit down, let's get this done. Instead, he came out swinging, as I say, belligerent.

COLLINS: Well, David, is there any -- is there any notion to the fact that the Geneva Conventions is 60 years old and that we are talking about a new and different enemy who uses new and different tactics? Is it fair to say there might be some revision that's needed?

GERGEN: Well, that's a perfectly good and legitimate argument. And the president is saying our CIA officers need to be able to interrogate people in pretty tough ways to get this kind of information.

But the issue is, can a -- can one nation, especially the most powerful nation, the United States, unilaterally water down what has been the understood conventions? Is that a wise idea? Or should you go back and try to renegotiate or have something else there?

That's the -- that's the dilemma that we're facing. And the president is right to say the U.S. -- the CIA, the people of the CIA do need standards. They do need to be carefully worked out.

But I have to tell you, from the point of view of John McCain and John Warner and the like, I've talked to them about this. They feel, look, we can protect our troops. We can protect this integration process. We just don't want to lower the standard so much that our own people get -- can be mistreated and abused in the future, they can be in some ways tortured. And we also don't want to, in effect, lose our moral standing on the issue of whether we abide by the Geneva Conventions.

That's what they're saying. They -- they think you can have it both ways, that you can have a good program, a good interrogation program, a good trial program, and still hold high standards. The president -- they feel the president is not -- does not seem to believe that. And John Negroponte does not believe that. And that's where the clashes come in.

I don't think that they're going to back down in the Senate and among the Republicans.

COLLINS: But if it's really that simple, it kind of comes down to these two issues of whether or not it's about U.S. soldiers, U.S. servicemen and women, and protecting them if they are captured in other countries.

GERGEN: Right.

COLLINS: Or is it about getting the information from the guys that the United States captures? If it's about that and also about whether or not the U.S. can protect itself or allow the international courts to do it, it seems like we might be able to get a bill here.

GERGEN: Well, you know, it is -- I believe that reasonable people can disagree on some of the techniques and sit down quietly without the glare of television, without beating up each other politically, and try to figure this out and work out something that would allow the CIA to continue interrogating people in ways they get legitimate information, but stay well short of the lines that would be seen as torture or abuse. And I think -- and that's what the Congress -- they revolted on last time, when the president tried to push through the torture process.

And they said no, no, no, Mr. President. You know, this goes too far, it lowers the standards too much. And we want to maintain high standards. We are the United States. We do believe in some sort of rule of law.

And, by the way, on that one they won. They won huge in the Senate. They won with 97 votes in the Senate on the McCain approach. And that's what McCain is coming back for, once again, with the support of Colin Powell.

I would argue -- and I'm surprised that this -- this dispute, this rift among Republicans, after all, has become so public and in which the -- you know, it is -- I'm surprised they haven't been able to work it out. Usually -- normally Republicans sit down and say, let's see if we can't figure this out and come to a reasonable understanding.


GERGEN: I've been very surprised how politicized this has become and how -- how tough the president was when he came out swinging today. He was a -- this was a tightly coiled, angry, belligerent president we saw today.

COLLINS: David Gergen, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, coming to us from Boston today.

We appreciate your insight as always.

GERGEN: Thank you.

COLLINS: Thank you, David.

HARRIS: Policy of politics. More on the divide between the president and top Republicans from Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.

Bill, good to talk to you.


HARRIS: This was a situation where we had a news conference, and I just sort of turned around and checked the monitors. It was covered by everyone. So a broad interest, an opportunity for the president to get his message out.

Give us a sense of -- when we see occasions like this, we always wonder whether or not the president is being heard, if he's getting an opportunity to change minds, and if people are tuning in or tuning out.

SCHNEIDER: Well, the president has been speaking about this issue now for about two weeks. He's given a sequence of speeches, essentially trying to reframe the agenda around the war on terror, the occasion of the September 11th anniversary, the fifth anniversary.

The president went on television. Now he's given a news conference. He shifted the agenda by, in part, taking action, not just giving speeches, moving 14 detainees to Guantanamo and requesting that Congress pass new legislation on both wiretapping and on detainee procedures so they can go on trial.

This was really an attempt to shift the agenda. The problem is that by doing so and laying down the gauntlet, as we just heard the president say, he said several times, defiantly, this program will not go forward without clear legal standards. What he was doing was picking a fight with members of his own party who are in open rebellion against the president.

HARRIS: I have to ask you, we look at polls all the time and the number -- that top number approval rating is something we focus on a lot. I'm sort of curious over the last week or so, given the focus of the president on terror, what have you seen in the numbers?

SCHNEIDER: Well, we see them right here. As you can see, the president's approval rating numbers have varied in the early September polls between 37 and 42 percent. The average of those six polls -- none of them by CNN, all by different news organizations -- the average of those six polls, 40 percent you see in the upper right-hand corner.

That is really not much change. The president was hoping to move that number up because of the focus on 9/11, the war on terror. It isn't really much changed from what it had been.

Some of the polls do show that the terrorism numbers for the president and the Republican party did improve, but there are many other issues out there, including the war in Iraq, including the economy, that have got a lot of Americans concerned.

So overall, really not much change.

HARRIS: So, in the 50 days or so before the midterm elections, is there sense that -- that Republicans would like to see that number get to a particular threshold? And what would that threshold be at that point? It would bode better for Republicans in the midterms?

SCHNEIDER: The answer is up. They want it up.


SCHNEIDER: Going into the 1994 midterms, where the Democrats were resoundingly defeated, Bill Clinton's numbers were in the mid- 40s, a little bit higher than George -- than George Bush's numbers are now. Republicans are worried, and I think in the next 50 days or so what they want to do is refocus the campaign away from national issues altogether.

Clearly, this attempt to reframe the debate over the war on terror may not be paying off, it may be splitting Republicans. So the answer for most Republicans who are running for re-election or for election is to treat this as localized, personalized election, in which national issues are not the central focus because the national issues are not doing the Republicans now much good.

HARRIS: Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider for us.

Bill, as always, thank you.


COLLINS: We want to head over to Capitol Hill now and CNN Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash to get some reaction to the comments from the president from that point of view.

Dana, what are you hearing from where you are?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, you know, first, I want to pick up on something that you were just talking about with David Gergen. He was saying that he's very surprised about this very public battle that the president is having with senior members of his party and wondering why they haven't been able to work it out in private. Let me just take you behind the scenes a little bit about what's been going on over the past six weeks or so since the Supreme Court made the ruling that sparked all of this. There has been a lot of talk behind the scenes, actually. Even throughout the entire five- week summer recess there were negotiations back and forth between the major players here on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator John McCain, Senator John Warner, the Armed Services chairman, and members of the White House, senior members of the administration.

And I think that -- that sort of makes it better, easier to understand why we are where we are right now. It is because the bottom line is there are just major policy differences over some pretty big issues that we've been talking about all morning.

One thing that the president -- the point the president tried to drive home over and over again is, the bottom line for him is that terrorists who are in custody right now who could provide information to stop future attacks won't be able to be interrogated if his legislation doesn't go through, if these Republican senators here stop him. Well, what Senator John McCain says in answer to that is he just disagrees.

He says that the president is wrong on that issue and that he's getting -- the advice he's getting from senior intelligence officers like John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence, even the CIA director, is, from McCain's point of view, intended to give what he said is a free hand to the CIA interrogators to allow them to do things that perhaps members of the U.S. government shouldn't be doing to detainees. So that is something that Senator McCain has said in a pretty personal way about the head of the CIA, saying that that's essentially what he's trying to do here, change the law, and in a way that really is unbecoming of anybody working for the U.S. government.

COLLINS: Yes, we heard the president talking today about that very point and saying, really, what he just wants to do is get clarity, because the -- at least in the past, the Common Article 3 has not really been tested by the United States, and wants to have line- by-line details for what exactly can happen in interrogation. Does that really say to you and those around you that it wants a free hand?

BASH: Well, you know, if you talk to -- you just hit on, really, the other major debate and really divide here, difference in opinion on how this should be approached. Because what -- what Senator McCain, Senator Warner and others say is that you just can't change the treaty even if it is trying to more narrowly define it. Even if it is because, as you were talking about earlier, today's world is very different than it was 60 years ago when it was signed, because they say that -- as the president was talking about earlier -- if an American is abroad and if that American is captured by a country that also decided to change the terms of this treaty, it's not guaranteed that that country would change it in a way that would be acceptable. And it could endanger Americans abroad.

That's the other point that you're hearing from here, on Capitol Hill. There are very, very deep divisions in approach. That's why it's been so hard to come -- to come to a compromise. COLLINS: You know what? We will follow the drama and we will see what happens next.

Dana Bash coming to us from Capitol Hill today.

Thanks, Dana.

HARRIS: Let's figure this out in nuts and bolts legally. Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, joins us now.

Jeffrey, David Grergen was surprised at the tone of the president. Were you surprised that he came out as -- well, he was hard-hitting. He was tough, he was hard-hitting. And I guess the question is, were you surprised he didn't sound more of a conciliatory tone, a willingness to work more closely in finding the language here? Because it seems like that's where we are, the language.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: I certainly was surprised because this is an area where compromise is really possible. You're dealing with pretty vague concepts that -- you know, this is why lawyers go to law school, is that they can write things that everybody can agree with.

But the president didn't just say, you know, what the president -- what the senators' proposal was unacceptable. What he said was -- he went even further. He was really playing chicken with the -- with the senators.

He was saying, look, go ahead and pass your law. You pass that law, if it somehow becomes law, I'm shutting this program down. And that's on your head.

So he didn't just say we disagree about the legislation, he said the implications of what the senators are doing is to end a program which the president says has been very successful in the war on terror. That's unusually strong talk against any members of Congress, much less members of his own party. But, you know, as everyone's been saying, this was an unusually combative performance by a generally pretty combative president.

HARRIS: So, we take the president -- we have to take the president at his word when he says that the problem with Common Article 3, which prohibits outrages against personal dignity, is that it -- it is unclear, and we can't have our interrogators trying to get information that we need to protect this country under a bit of language here that is this vague. We can do better than this.

TOOBIN: And that's -- that's a -- that's a powerful argument. And that's what he's going to the Senate, saying it's simply unacceptable to expect our -- our CIA employees in difficult, dangerous circumstances, to be guided by this -- this vague statue and potentially criminally liable for violating it.

HARRIS: OK, but...

TOOBIN: I'm sorry... HARRIS: But, Jeffrey, aren't we talking about -- we can be clear about this. The war crimes act criminalizes is murder. We're talking about a list here, aren't we? It criminalizes mutilation, cruel treatment, torture, humiliation. We can be clear about that. So are we talking about working that kind of specific language into whatever bill is crafted here?

TOOBIN: Well, what one of the -- one of the arguments that the senators have is that, you know, this rule -- you know, you say it's so vague. The United States hasn't found it that vague for the last 60 years that they couldn't abide by it. So, yes, it does sound vague to us now. But the world and certainly the American armed forces have figured out a way to accommodate it.

But interestingly, you know, you raise that issue of specificity. One of the issues that came up in the Supreme Court's decision just a few months ago that led to this whole controversy is the issue of conspiracy. Conspiracy was one of the -- was charged against one of the military -- one of the detainees in Guantanamo. But conspiracy is not listed in the law. So that's the kind of area where this gets complicated.

And by the way, you know, we're portraying this as a dispute between the Senate and the president. Remember, the last word in this country always goes to the United States Supreme Court. And twice in the past three years, the United States Supreme Court has said George Bush, you messed up. These rules are unacceptable.

So even if the president gets his proposal through, it is not at all clear that the court will approve it, especially given one provision that we didn't discuss much, or wasn't discussed much at the news conference, which is this issue of secret evidence.

And this is something that Senator Lindsey Graham has focused on a lot. And he said, look, there's no court in America, especially the Supreme Court, that is going to uphold executing somebody -- because that's what we're talking about -- executing somebody based on evidence he never saw. And I think Senator Graham raises a very profound point there. So that's something that we've got to keep in mind, that, you know, the Senate -- the politicians can agree or disagree, but they don't have the last word. Those nine folks across First Street in Washington, they have the last word.

HARRIS: Senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin for us out of New York. Jeffrey, that was good, thank you.

TOOBIN: OK, see you, man.

COLLINS: And we're going to be back with a quick look at today's big stories, including an update on a health warning you don't want to miss. It's about spinach. Want to tell you all about it. It's coming up next in the "NEWSROOM."


COLLINS: Eat your veggies... HARRIS: Yes?

COLLINS: Just skip the spinach.

HARRIS: What? Well, that's the nationwide warning from the Food and Drug Administration today. The reason, an E. coli outbreak. It's blamed for at least one death. Health experts say the outbreak is linked to pre-packaged spinach. No specific brand or supplier has been identified. As a result, the FDA is warning consumers not to eat any bagged spinach. Officials say anyone who has gotten sick after eating it should see a doctor. In addition to the death, the E. coli outbreak has sickened dozens of people. CNN has now learned the outbreak has now spread to nine states, with Ohio the latest to confirm several cases.

COLLINS: To Wisconsin now. A lesson on the value of trust. Green Bay school officials say a student tipped off staffers to a massacre plot at East High School. Two 17-year-old boys are now under arrest and police say they found guns, ammunition and bombs inside their homes, along with suicide notes.


MAYOR JAMES SCHMITT, GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN: This was real and this was thwarted because of the systems that were in place. And the investigation is going to continue, but, you know, we thwarted what could have been just a terrible, terrible day.


COLLINS: And on to western Michigan, an accident involving a school bus packed with children. It reportedly collided with a car that ran a stop sign in foggy weather, the impact so forceful it knocked the bus on its side. Police say several students were hurt, five of them seriously.

HARRIS: Drastic cuts at Ford Motor Company. The automaker announced today it's slashing thousands of jobs and closing more plants. The cuts part of Ford's ongoing plan to get back in the black. Executives say it's painful, but critical for the company's survival.


MARK FIELDS, FORD EXEC., V.P. AND PRES., THE AMERICAS: The future cannot be delivered without changing our business model and addressing our uncompetitive cost position. The reality is that our business today is structured around a model that worked well for us a decade ago, but is no longer viable today.

Going forward, we must take a conservative and realistic view of our revenue and cost position. We must base our business on the customer, and that includes relying our structure, our production and our capacity with customer demand.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARRIS: So here's Ford's plan. Cut 14,000 salaried positions -- that's about a third of Ford's North American management team. All 75,000 U.S. hourly workers will be offered buyouts. No details until next month. The United Autoworkers Union says some employees will be offered as much as $40,000. In exchange, they'll have to forfeit some retirement benefits.

Ford announced in January, it will cost 40,000 manufacturing jobs. The company now hopes to do that by 2008, four years earlier than planned. And two more plants are on the chopping block, bringing the number of planned closures to 16. Ford is also suspending its dividend payment. All these moves are aimed at saving $5 billion over the next two years.


HARRIS: As we mentioned just a moment ago, big changes for the Ford Motor Company. What it means for the auto industry, at the top of the hour in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Also, trauma in a war zone. Dr. Sanjay Gupta on how to cope. That and more in the NEWSROOM at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

HARRIS: And in the meantime, "YOUR WORLD TODAY" continues after a quick break. I'm Tony Harris.

COLLINS: And I'm Heidi Collins. Have a great day, everybody.



© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines