By Karen DeYoung and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he decided to publicly oppose the Bush administration's proposed rules for the treatment of terrorism suspects in part because the plan would add to growing doubts about whether the United States adheres to its own moral code.
"If you just look at how we are perceived in the world and the kind of criticism we have taken over Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and renditions," Powell said in an interview, "whether we believe it or not, people are now starting to question whether we're following our own high standards."
Powell, elaborating on a position first expressed last week in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also argued that the administration's plan to "clarify" U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions would set a precedent for other nations that would endanger U.S. troops.
"Suppose North Korea or somebody else wants to redefine or 'clarify' " Geneva Conventions provisions prohibiting "outrages against personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" of prisoners, he said.
Powell's opposition marks a rare public breach with the administration he left 20 months ago. As secretary of state, he repeatedly clashed privately with Vice President Cheney and others who had more hard-line foreign policy views. But since leaving office he has declined nearly all opportunities to publicly criticize even those policies he opposed internally.
Powell has said he regrets that the Iraq invasion was launched on the basis of false intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and Hussein's relationship with al-Qaeda, information that he vouched for in an address before a hostile United Nations. He has also said that he believes the administration should have sent more troops to invade Iraq and provided a better postwar plan.
Powell also allowed his name to be identified among those opposed to Bush's nomination of his former State Department subordinate, John R. Bolton, as Washington's U.N. ambassador.
But he has reserved his strongest opposition for administration efforts to preserve controversial methods for interrogating terrorism suspects, techniques that others have defined as torture. While it is not clear exactly what techniques the White House wishes to keep, sources have said those previously used include nakedness, prolonged sensory assault and deprivation, the imposition of "stress" positions, and water submersion to the verge of drowning. Bush has said none of those amounts to torture.
Powell strenuously objected to Bush's February 2002 decision that the United States was not obliged to adhere to Geneva Conventions rules in its treatment of captured al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. Subsequent scandals over military treatment of prisoners at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and over the CIA's establishment of secret prisons abroad, further cemented his views that the decision was unnecessary in terms of prisoner interrogation and is harmful to the armed forces.
Last fall, over administration opposition, Powell publicly supported McCain's successful effort to ensure that restrictions in the Army Field Manual outlawing torture be adopted as the definitive guidance for military treatment of detainees. His position owed as much to his 35 years as an Army officer as to his tenure as the nation's chief diplomat.
The current dispute is over how the provisions of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions against inhumane and degrading treatment bind the CIA and other non-military interrogators.
The administration has argued that the article is too vague and ties the CIA's hands in extracting crucial information from terrorists. Last week, Powell joined dozens of other retired military officers and former government officials in objecting to proposed administration legislation "clarifying" the article to ensure that certain unspecified interrogation methods can continue.
In his letter to McCain, Powell said the effort to "redefine" the article was "inconsistent" with his previous opposition to the use of torture. "The world," he wrote, "is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." On Friday, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 15 to 9 to endorse an alternative bill offered by McCain, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).
Bush aides said they appreciated that Powell did not make the matter personal or engage in cutting rhetoric. But the White House did not hesitate to push back strongly, even at the risk of further alienating Powell. White House spokesman Tony Snow said last Thursday that Powell was "confused" about the administration's proposal. The president followed up the next day with a stern reaction at a Rose Garden news conference, when he reinterpreted Powell's position to suggest that the former secretary of state was equating U.S. tactics to those of terrorists.
Powell declined yesterday to address Bush's comments. "To say that we want to modify, clarify or redefine Common Article 3, which has not been modified for the 57 years of its history, I think adds to the doubt" about U.S. morality, he said. "Plus I believe that the legitimate concerns that the administration has can be dealt with in other ways."
Yesterday, another prominent Republican weighed in. In a statement released by his office in California, former secretary of state George P. Shultz said he believes that a compromise can be reached that "leaves the Geneva Convention alone and achieves the specificity that the administration wants."
Meanwhile, former president Jimmy Carter, a leading voice on human rights, said yesterday that he is "filled with admiration" for McCain, Powell and others who have joined in opposition. The Bush administration, Carter told Reuters, has "redefined torture to make it convenient for them," adding: "Things that are . . . globally assumed to be torture they claim . . . [are] not torture."