U.S. Shifts Policy on Geneva Conventions

By Charles Babington and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Bush administration has agreed to apply the Geneva Conventions to all terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, bowing to the Supreme Court's recent rejection of policies that have imprisoned hundreds for years without trials.

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it has called on military officials to adhere to the conventions in dealing with al-Qaeda detainees. The administration also has decided that even prisoners held by the CIA in secret prisons abroad must be treated in accordance with international standards, an interpretation that would prohibit prisoners from being subjected to harsh treatment in interrogations, several U.S. officials said.

The developments underscored how the administration has been forced to retreat from its long-standing position that President Bush be given extensive leeway to determine how to interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects captured in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Until recently, the White House and Defense Department have pursued such anti-terrorism policies with little interference from Congress and the courts, but that has begun to change.

Since 2002, the administration has contended that the Geneva Conventions would be respected as a matter of policy but that they did not apply by law to terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in U.S. military custody elsewhere. Administration officials have voiced concern that the conventions are too vague and could expose the military to second-guessing about appropriate treatment.

But the Supreme Court rejected that view in a 5 to 3 decision last month, ruling that a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay could not be tried by a special military commission established by the Bush administration. The court held that the commissions violate U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

More than 400 such detainees are being held at Guantanamo Bay. None has been brought to trial, and some say they are innocent civilians mistakenly swept up in U.S. military raids.

Administration officials indicated that they had little choice but to act in the aftermath of that Supreme Court ruling. They disputed the suggestion that the new Pentagon policy represents significant change, because the administration already said that it treats detainees humanely.

"We strongly believe that terrorists picked up off the battlefield -- who don't represent a nation, revel in killing the innocent, and refuse to wear uniforms -- do not qualify for protections under Geneva," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "Five members of the Supreme Court disagreed. As the president said, we will comply with the ruling."

The new Pentagon policy -- detailed in a July 7 memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England -- called on defense officials to ensure that military personnel adhere to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which provides a base-line level of protections for all terrorism suspects picked up on the battlefield.

The practical impact of the policy is uncertain. Legislation approved last year over Bush's objections bars the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment against detainees, approximating what is in the Geneva Conventions. Some military lawyers, however, said they think the memo will remove a certain ambiguity about what military interrogators may do in the name of extracting information.

Many involved in the debate, especially those representing detainees and military lawyers who have fought the administration's policy, see symbolic significance in the new order, coming as it did after five years of intense battling within the administration over the applicability of the Geneva Conventions.

Bush declared in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that al-Qaeda members were not entitled to the formal protections of the Geneva Conventions, siding with White House and Defense Department lawyers over objections from the State Department. But he said the prisoners would be treated humanely.

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