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President Bush Signs Military Commissions Bill


And on this day, three Tuesdays before the election, there was a signing ceremony at the White House. It was a bill that President Bush calls one of the most important pieces of legislation in the war on terror.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It is a rare occasion when a president can sign a bill he knows will save American lives. I have that privilege this morning.


INSKEEP: The measure the president signed creates special military commissions to try suspected terrorists. It was passed in September by a Congress eager to show its anti-terror credentials. Since then, though, the war in Iraq has grown worse, as have the political fortunes of the president and his party.

Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: The Military Commissions Act of 2006 was a legislative victory for President Bush, a demonstration of his ability to still get what he wants from Capitol Hill when he applies intense pressure - despite initial concerns over prisoner rights and the definition of torture raised by prominent Republicans, including Senator John McCain. Throughout that debate, the president insisted time was of essence, that the law needed to be clarified in order to give the CIA and the military all the authority they needed to interrogate and try detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered the mastermind of the attacks of 9/11.

Here's Mr. Bush last month in the Rose Garden.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We have a duty. We have a duty to work together to give our folks on the frontline the tools necessary to protect America. Time's running out.


GONYEA: Now, some 19 days after congressional passage, the bill becomes law with the president's signature. It establishes military commissions, outlaws blatant abuse during interrogations, but also allows the administration to decide what the limits are. The White House says it does not allow torture, but critics say the administration has in the past allowed torture. And they say the bill's reliance on one branch to set the rules is unconstitutional.

Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher says it's clear the White House was looking for the right moment to hold today's ceremony. Otherwise, Asher says, this event might have been lost in all the coverage of the congressional page scandal, or in the attention given Bob Woodward's new book about the president's handling of the Iraq War.

Professor HERB ASHER (Political Science, Ohio State University): Certainly, the last three weeks - had the president signed it, it would have probably been the third or fourth story on any news show after Iraq and Mark Foley. So they waited till they could probably get more coverage of this. And clearly, this is part of an effort to get the focus back on terrorism and national security and try to gain control over the agenda, because the last three weeks have been disastrous.

GONYEA: Today's ceremony also comes exactly three weeks prior to the mid-term elections. And the president will highlight the detainee bill as he intensifies his campaign travel, all in an effort to minimize Democratic gains in the Congress. But the president's message is competing with another coming from Iraq. At the White House yesterday, press secretary Tony Snow was asked whether the U.S. was winning in Iraq.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define winning? The fact is, in taking on the war on terror - let me put it this way. The president's made it obvious we're going to win. And that means, ultimately, providing an Iraq that is safe, secure, and an ally in the war on terror.

GONYEA: Also yesterday, in a phone call to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush found it necessary to deny rumors that the U.S. might set a deadline for the Baghdad government to get sectarian violence under control. The president said there is no timeline. That may be what the Iraqi leader needed to hear, but it's not what restless voters were hoping for.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.