In breaking news this morning, the Bush White House and the three Republican senators who had held up its authority-to-torture legislation announced that they had reached a compromise, which will preserve “the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions” while at the same time giving the president “the tools that he needs to continue to fight the war on terror”.

The legislation, already approved by the lower house, was intended to create new rules for military commissions to try terrorism suspects (replacing those overturned by the Supreme Court three months ago), and to provide continuing authorisation for the CIA’s program of interrogating them — a program that appears to involve techniques that, according to the court’s reasoning, violate the Geneva Conventions.

The three senators — John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham — had blocked the administration’s bill and insisted on their own version, which would contain a clear prohibition of torture. Now they have done a deal. It is not clear, however, who has given more ground, although according to The New York Times “the White House reportedly dropped its insistence on redefining American obligations under the Geneva Conventions.”

It seems likely that the agreement is deliberately fuzzy on the details — national security adviser Stephen Hadley called it just a “framework for compromise” — and that its effects won’t be clear until legislative amendments are drafted. Indications are that the administration still considers torture a political positive, so it is unlikely that it intends to give away its position altogether.

The three senators faced huge pressure from within the Republican party to end the stand-off, with mid-term elections only a month and a half away. The party’s view is particularly important to McCain, who is one of the frontrunners for the 2008 presidential nomination but is regarded with deep suspicion by the hardline Republican base. Giving some ground on torture would be one way to make some friends there.

Meanwhile, the UN’s chief anti-torture expert has revealed that reports of torture in Iraq suggest the situation may be “worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein”. Perhaps the US could start trying to set them a better example.

Peter Fray

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