McCain, Feinstein Debate Terrorist Trials


July 2, 2006 — -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., predicted Congress will act swiftly to reverse the Supreme Court's declaration that President Bush exceeded his authority by ordering military tribunals for the approximately 400 detainees held in Guantanamo Bay.

"We're gonna have hearings, we're going to examine the court decision very carefully," McCain said in an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "I am confident that we can make sure that bad guys … are not released … and those that deserve to be released will be."

The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the Bush administration overstepped their bounds, saying in the majority decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens that the administration contradicted both U.S. law and the Geneva Convention. The case itself was brought by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a known associate of Osama bin Laden who has been held in Guantanamo for four years. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who backed the government in a previous decision at the appeals level, withdrew from the Supreme Court case.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also appearing exclusively on "This Week," said the Supreme's Court's decision is significant.

"The Court's opinion was a very major opinion, and basically what it said was that the president exceeded his authority," she said.

"It's pretty clear to me that the Congress has to act and should act," she added.

McCain sounded a cautiously optimistic tone, repeatedly arguing that Congress could forge a compromise.

"I think we can sit down together, we can work this out," he said.

McCain said he saw three parts to the decision -- the role of Congress in resolving the debate, using the military code of justice as a framework for any work by Congress, and a need to more strictly adhere to the Geneva Convention.

There were, however, some rumblings this week that the issue could become political in a critical mid-term election year. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a press release on Friday criticizing Democrats for their reaction to the decision. The statement, entitled "Capitol Hill Democrats Advocate Special Privileges for Terrorists," said in part, "Al Qaeda, whose terrorist thugs are not a party to nor bound by the Geneva Conventions, is surely pleased at the show of support from Capitol Hill Democrats."

Feinstein warned, "I think the Republicans will rue the day if they politicize this."

McCain, however, remained confident, saying members of both parties "ought to look at the bright side of this," telling ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos that the judicial logjam that had prevented any trials had now been broken.

"We will move forward and adjudicate these cases," McCain concluded.

McCain felt the decision would not impact the other war powers exerted by President Bush.

Feinstein disagreed.

"I do think this applies to the terrorist surveillance program," she said. "The president is somewhat bridled by the Constitution and the law … and he must follow this in this war on terror."

Feinstein also stated, "I think this nation is strengthened, not weakened when this happens."

But, with regard to the New York Times story detailing the U.S. government's efforts at bank data surveillance, both senators told ABC News they would rather not have seen the program on the front page of one of the nation's largest newspapers.

"I don't think they should have published it," McCain said. "I think we should go after the leakers first, but if the New York Times [thought] the story was inconsequential, the legitimate question is, why was it on the front page?"

Feinstein's criticism was more nuanced, saying, "I, in a way, wish they hadn't [published the story] but that's not my job to say."

But, Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the Bush administration for not telling Congress about the program earlier. Feinstein confirmed the administration came to Congress only when the story seemed imminent.

"That's when and why they came and briefed us," she said.

Feinstein reserved her sharpest criticism for the Bush administration's national security team saying, "I think the time has come to involve a very different strategy, and I don't think it cane be done under this Pentagon."

Feinstein asserted it was time to "change the team, look for a new strategy," expressing doubts about the president's policy in Iraq when saying, "I'm very concerned that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war and I don't see it turning."

As the Senate heads into its Fourth of July recess, both senators commented on a number of political issues that have passed before the Senate and may appear again before the November elections. McCain continued to express optimism that an immigration compromise might be found, admitting, "To be gridlocked would not improve our standing with the American people or our base."

McCain joked that his bipartisan approach, which has been taken up in the House more as a political tactic than for serious debate, might have better success if called "the Bush bill." Opponents have taken to calling the measure the Reid-Kennedy bill, removing their Republican colleague from any identification with it.

McCain and Feinstein both supported last week's efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning. Feinstein, one of several Democrats who edged the bill within one vote of passage, defended her position.

"It all depends on whether you view this as conduct or expression, [and] I think burning the flag is conduct," Feinstein said.

On minimum wage, potentially the next hot-button issue for the Senate when it returns, McCain scoffed at Democratic threats to hold up an automatic $3,300 Congressional pay raise until an increase in the minimum wage succeeds.

"I'm against the way we do the pay raises anyway," he said. "[Republicans] have a proposal on the minimum wage. It just gives some protections to small businesses."

McCain, known for his battles against excess government spending, couldn't resist telling Stephanopoulos, "I've forgone the pay raise for many, many years -- sometimes to the dismay of my family."

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