Within months of the Sept. 11 attacks, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales reportedly wrote Bush a memo about the terrorism fight and prisoners’ rights under the Geneva Conventions.
“In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions,” Newsweek reports in its May 24 issue, quoting an excerpt from the Gonzales memo.
“It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war," Newsweek reports. “In doing so, they overrode the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell and America's top military lawyers —and they left underlings to sweat the details of what actually happened to prisoners in these lawless places.”
And the Newsweek story reports that U.S. soldiers and CIA operatives “could be accused of war crimes. Among the possible charges: homicide involving deaths during interrogations.”
Asked on Sunday about the Gonzales memo, the White House said, “It is the policy of the United States to comply with all of our laws and our treaty obligations.”
“I wouldn’t comment on the specific memo without rereading it again,” Powell said. “But ... the Geneva Accord is an important standard in international law and we have to comply with it.”
Powell, interviewed from Jordan by NBC News, left open the possibility of problems up the line from the guards who engaged in abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the focal point of the scandal. “I don’t see yet any indication that there was a command-climate problem higher up,” he said.
Powell also said Sunday that there were discussions at high levels inside the Bush administration last fall about information from the International Committee of the Red Cross alleging prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
“We knew that the ICRC had concerns, and in accordance with the matter in which the ICRC does its work, it presented those concerns directly to the command in Baghdad,” Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I know that some corrective action was taken with respect to those concerns.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern over the shift in responsibility for the scandal at the prison, where military intelligence personnel were given authority over the military police. “We need to take this as far up as it goes,” McCain said.
The Newsweek article surfaced over the weekend, in the midst of Pentagon denials of a report in The New Yorker magazine that Rumsfeld authorized expansion of a secret program that encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to obtain intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.
The New Yorker story, written by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, said Rumsfeld decided to expand the program last year, broadening a Pentagon operation from the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan to interrogation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The New Yorker report was published on the magazine’s Web site. The story hits newsstands on Monday.
The Defense Department strongly denied the claims made in the report, which cited unnamed current and former intelligence officials. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement calling the claims “outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.”