Sept. 17, 2006 — -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defended his opposition to White House-approved terror-detainee legislation Sunday, instead supporting a measure that provides for the detention and trial of terrorist suspects that the president has vowed to defeat.
"This is a matter or conscience, an American conscience," McCain told ABC News in an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "Are we going to be like the enemy, or are we going to be the United States of America?"
On Friday, President Bush argued that CIA-led detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists was essential to fighting the war on terror.
"Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland," Bush told reporters in a Rose Garden press conference. "By giving us information about terrorist plans we couldn't get anywhere else, this program has saved innocent lives."
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that military commissions for certain detainees at Guantanamo Bay violated both the military code of justice and the Geneva Conventions, a series of international laws constructed after World War II to set the standard for the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war.
As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, the president was forced to turn to Congress in order to find a way to detain and try some of the world's most notorious terror suspects.
Some Republicans, including McCain and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., rejected the president's proposal, which would have revised the Geneva Conventions to withhold classified evidence from suspects at trial and, more significantly, would not jeopardize interrogation tactics that some deem harsh or inhumane.
"I'm not saying we should shut down the program," McCain told Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent. "We should be very aware that if we engage in these activities … the world will condemn us and we will lose the high ground. And then what happens to Americans who are captured in future wars?"
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, the first secretary of state in the Bush administration, wrote a letter this week supporting the McCain-Warner position.
In it, Powell stated, "Our moral posture is one of best weapons. We're not doing so well on the public diplomacy front. This would be the wrong signal to send to the world."
Also appearing on "This Week," Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley rejected Powell's assertion, firing back about what's fast becoming an intra-party Republican fight.
"This is not torture," Hadley said. "This is not a program out of control. This is a program conducted pursuant to law by professionals who receive a lot of training."
In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and a number of Democratic calls for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to be closed entirely, Stephanopoulos pressed as to whether Hadley felt it was a stretch to think that the administration seems to be asking the Congress to "trust (them)" on their approach to detainees.
"It is not out of control and we are not saying trust us. We are going to the Congress," the National Security advisor countered.
Undeterred, McCain continued to argue that allowing the administration to continue unabated would threaten the country's reputation and potentially the lives of soldiers in future wars.
"We have to hold the moral high ground; we're the ones people look up to," he said. "We can't lower our standards because others do. … We are not like al Qaeda, we are not like the bad guys."
McCain also claimed that support from Powell and other military leaders has come because "they are very worried about, American military personnel will fall into the hands of the bad guys and they will modify or interpret the Geneva Conventions."
While Hadley acknowledged the United States had never altered its interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, he continued to defend the administration's position.
"What we're trying to do is answer a call that comes from the men and women in the CIA who are responsible for questioning al Qaeda detainees," Hadley said. "They want to know they are adhering to the law."
McCain, thought by many to be positioning for a second run for the White House in 2008, seemed unfazed by any potential political fallout from taking on the president, the leader of the Republican Party, just seven weeks before crucial midterm elections that could sway the balance of power in Washington.
"I believe this has nothing to do with politics," McCain said. "No matter what the political impact is, this is a matter of conscience."
Despite their differences and a rare intra-party fight that erupted in full view of the public last week, both McCain and Hadley felt confident a compromise could still be reached.
McCain predicted, "I still believe we will be able to work this out to the satisfaction of everyone concerned."
Hadley stressed, "We need to find a way through that obstacle course and I think we can."
But, for now, the Republican senator who faced then-Gov. Bush in a contentious 2000 presidential primary contest once again finds himself at odds with the president.
"He's a friend and I hope he considers me a friend," McCain said of the president. "This has nothing to do with al Qaeda, it has everything to do with America."
Stephanopoulos' entire interviews with McCain and Hadley can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.