U.S. holds line on detainees

Aides acknowledge high court ruling

July 12, 2006|By PETER SPIEGEL AND MAURA REYNOLDS | PETER SPIEGEL AND MAURA REYNOLDS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that it was legally obligated to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, reversing a position it has held tightly for more than four years. But it declared that the shift would not significantly change the way it treats captives.

The declaration set off a heated debate in Congress, where several key members said that the administration must back away from its tough confinement tactics and drop its military commission system for putting detainees on trial, instead adopting procedures closer to the standard U.S. military justice system.

"If you fight that approach, it's going to be a long, hot summer," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, in a tense exchange with a Justice Department official at a congressional hearing.

The conflict came as the administration and Congress prepare to respond to a landmark Supreme Court decision last month that ruled the Bush administration's system of trying alleged al-Qaida war criminals violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

The Supreme Court ruled that the fight against al-Qaida was covered by a portion of Geneva called Common Article 3, which governs wars involving combatants not tied to nation-states, and suggested Congress impose new rules for the military trials. Yesterday's confrontation, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is expected to be repeated before other congressional committees this week and through the summer.

The decision to extend the Geneva Conventions' coverage to detainees came in a memorandum issued by Gordon England, the deputy defense secretary. The Pentagon acknowledged that the Supreme Court decision had forced its hand, and ordered the department's leadership to ensure all personnel and policies adhered to Geneva's standards.

But the administration at the same time gave almost no ground on substantive detainee policies. The Pentagon said that, other than the military tribunals struck down, all detainee policies - from interrogations to medical treatment - complied with Geneva's strictures.

Even on the question of the military trials, the administration said yesterday it wanted to reinstitute its policies for dealing with those accused of being al-Qaida war criminals. In the contentious Judiciary Committee hearing, administration lawyers urged Congress to pass legislation that would implement the system that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The administration's insistence on sticking with the old framework was rebuffed by Graham, the congressional Republicans' point man on the issue, who angrily warned the administration that its stance "would be a mistake" and that it faced a bruising fight with Congress.

"We are not going to respond - at least I'm not going to respond - to some product that was enacted without any [congressional] consultation," said Graham, a former military lawyer.

The unexpected resistance from a bipartisan group of senators to the administration's plans reflects a growing concern among lawmakers that treatment of detainees has become a foreign policy problem for the United States.

Military lawyers, many of whom have fought the administration's plans within the Pentagon over the last four years, have also convinced lawmakers that American soldiers abroad could be at risk of abuse if fighters captured by the United States are not granted internationally recognized rights.

But the rebuff also is a sign that many senators, including several Republicans, remain angry at the White House for not consulting Congress on a wide range of terror-related policies. A similar fight broke out this year on a proposal by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to ban torture in all interrogations, a fight Congress ultimately won.

The Pentagon's decision to adopt the Geneva Conventions' protections came just days before Bush leaves for Europe for a meeting of the Group of Eight major industrial powers. The administration's main European allies, including the United Kingdom, have been critical of U.S. treatment of detainees and its failure to abide by the Geneva Conventions' standards.

Despite its reversal on Geneva, however, the administration's effort yesterday to reassert its authority over detainee policy was unabashed and wide-ranging.

Even as the Pentagon was ordering its commanders to abide by Geneva, administration lawyers on Capitol Hill denigrated the Supreme Court decision, warning that application of Geneva standards would make it harder for soldiers on the front lines.

Steven G. Bradbury, head of the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, told the Judiciary Committee that Geneva's Common Article 3 is "inherently vague" on how to treat detainees and open to multiple interpretations. Bradbury also noted the article provides more limited rights than the rest of the conventions.

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