The Bush administration yesterday released a delayed report on U.S. efforts to promote human rights, one day after a memo by White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales emerged that had dismissed some of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions as "quaint."
In the report, released by the State Department, the United States pledged to continue to push for improved human rights, including halting torture and promoting freedom of the press and religion. The report had been scheduled for release on May 5, but was delayed after images of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were broadcast around the world.
The Gonzales memo, first reported in Newsweek, created new problems for the administration because it suggested a cavalier attitude toward the core treaty governing treatment of prisoners of war. But White House officials said yesterday the views contained in the memo did not help create an atmosphere for the mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison.
Human rights officials said the damage caused by the revelations of abuse -- along with revelations such as the Gonzales memo -- will make it much more difficult for the United States to speak with moral authority to nations that trample on their citizens' rights.
"The biggest victims of this prison abuse scandal are the people in countries like China, Egypt and Zimbabwe who depend on the United States for their rights," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "These governments will exploit this and have a ready-made argument to demoralize democracy advocates: Even the United States, your biggest champion, abuses people."
Questions about U.S. interrogation tactics continued to reverberate on Capitol Hill, where Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) announced the Senate Armed Services Committee would hold a hearing tomorrow on the prisoner abuse in Iraq -- the panel's third in two weeks.
State Department officials denied that the abuse scandal had hurt their effectiveness abroad, though they conceded the U.S. image had been marred. "What we're hearing from people overseas is, we think Abu Ghraib is an awful thing and we think it shows that the United States is imperfect, but we still want you to help us," said Assistant Secretary Lorne W. Craner.
But one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said representatives of Saudi Arabia have noted to U.S. officials that fighting terrorism required tough measures in the Middle East, and that more democracy can be counterproductive. "The Saudis have been pretty smug," the official said. "The message is: 'Now you understand. You have to stop beating us up on this.' "
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who yesterday delivered the commencement address at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said Arab leaders questioned him about the abuse scandal at an economic conference in Jordan over the weekend.
"In their disappointment about America right now, I told them, 'Watch America, watch how we deal with this, watch how America will do the right thing,' " Powell said. The outrage is not limited to the Arab world. Yesterday, European Union foreign ministers strongly condemned the abuse as "contrary to international law."
Disclosure of the Gonzales memo provided new details of the debate within the administration in early 2002 over whether international treaties and laws should apply to foes in the war against terrorism.
"In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," Gonzales wrote President Bush on Jan. 25, 2002, according to Newsweek.
Bush initially adopted Gonzales's recommendation but pulled back after Powell registered strong objections in what at the time was a rare public display of administration infighting. In response, Bush said captured combatants who fought for Afghanistan's Taliban government would be formally covered by the Geneva Conventions, but he did not confer that status on detainees who were members of al Qaeda.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters the memo did not pertain to Iraq and thus had no role in the prison abuse scandal. It "related specifically to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It did not reference Iraq at all. We have made it clear that we are bound by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq," he said.
McClellan said the provisions Gonzales had called quaint were giving the captured enemy "such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e. advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments." He added that the administration decided to treat al Qaeda and Taliban detainees "humanely and consistent with the Geneva Conventions." The White House has not released the memo, though lawmakers have requested a copy.
Powell said Sunday that he did not recall the memo. State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said yesterday: "The State Department, as in all interagency discussions, presented a full consideration of its views in the interagency process. We think that's our obligation to promoting good policy; that all ramifications of decisions are considered." A CIA spokesman, meanwhile, joined Pentagon officials in assailing an article by Seymour Hersh in the current edition of the New Yorker magazine.
Hersh wrote that after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld created a "special access program" to use elite commandos and operatives to carry out interrogations of terrorists worldwide. He wrote that the group "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq." Hersh said "a senior CIA official" confirmed details.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow called the Hersh story "fundamentally wrong" in its assertion that there was a "DOD/CIA program to abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners." Harlow added, "Despite what is alleged in the article, I am aware of no CIA official who would have or possibly could have confirmed the details of the New Yorker's inaccurate account."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.