The former Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday repudiated White House plans to allow coercive interrogations of al-Qaida suspects, saying it would erode the moral basis of the US "war on terror".
In a letter to Senator John McCain, one of a trio of powerful Republicans who have opposed White House proposals for new legislation on detainees, Mr Powell warned that it would be a mistake to reduce America's commitment to the Geneva convention on treatment of prisoners. "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Mr Powell wrote.
The intervention from Mr Powell, a four-star general almost universally respected by civilians and former colleagues in the military, dealt a serious setback to White House efforts to bring in legislation on the war on terror ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections.
Mr Bush announced last week that 14 high-profile al-Qaida suspects, including the architect of the September 11 attacks, had been transferred to Guantánamo and would be put on trial before military tribunals. The announcement was seen as an effort by Mr Bush to move the focus away from the war in Iraq and towards national security, where the Republicans traditionally outperform Democrats.
However, Mr Bush has faced strenuous opposition, spearheaded by Republican senators, to his plans for legislation that would set up the tribunals but would also dilute US compliance with a section of the convention calling for humane treatment of prisoners. The White House says the measure is necessary to shield US personnel from prosecution for war crimes.
On Wednesday the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, said that the CIA would be unable to effectively interrogate prisoners unless it were guaranteed freedom from prosecution. Yesterday Mr Bush said: "It is very important for the American people to understand that in order to protect this country we must be able to interrogate people who have information about future attacks."
But Mr Powell, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, added his voice to those of military judges who say that America would imperil its own soldiers if it watered down its compliance with the Geneva convention.
The White House was forced to seek legal authorization from Congress on the issue of detainees after the supreme court ruled last June that the military tribunals for Guantánamo suspects were illegal and violated the convention.
The White House's tribunal plans would deprive the detainees of the right to see evidence against them that is classified. They could also be prosecuted with evidence obtained through torture.
Republican senators object to both measures. But while the senators won some praise for seeking guarantees on the treatment of detainees, lawyers representing the 440 inmates at Guantánamo yesterday accused Congress of being prepared to strip the prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in court.
Both versions of the bill on military tribunals would bar detainees from challenging their detention in US courts. So far some 200 Guantánamo inmates have filed suits challenging their detention.
© Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006