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In fog of war on terror, some rules set

Congress ended its session trying to specify how to treat terror detainees – and opted to give Bush leeway in interrogations.

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War is rarely kind to civil liberties. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War to the forced internment of some 120,000 Japanese in the US during World War II, the nation has repeatedly grappled with how to balance security and rights.

Now – in the middle of a war on terror and nearing critical midterm elections – Congress has taken another stab at achieving that balance. In historic votes last week, lawmakers banned torture, rape, and murder in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. But they left to the president to determine what techniques short of "serious" physical or mental pain or suffering are still allowed.

They also voted to give immunity to those involved in secret interrogations before last year's torture ban and to allow evidence obtained by "cruel and inhuman treatment" before that date to be used in military trials.

And in the most tightly contested decision of the week, lawmakers denied detainees in the war on the terror the right to challenge their detention in US courts. That means that anyone that the president or the secretary of Defense determines to be an enemy combatant – including noncitizens living legally in the United States – can be held indefinitely without trial.

In a wrap-up of the week's votes – including $448 billion for defense spending and $35 billion for homeland security in fiscal year 2007, as well as a mandate to build 700 miles of fence along the southern border – Republican leaders said the US will be "safer, stronger, and more prosperous" because of these laws.

"The specificity that the bill provides to the War Crimes Act – and its retroactive effect – will actually make prosecuting war criminals a realistic goal. None of my colleagues should object to that goal," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who led the drive to ban torture in 2005, in a statement after the vote.

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