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Powell in Rift Over Status of Detainees

Rights: While not asking that the 460 men in U.S. custody be classified as POWs, the State Dept. wants Bush to afford them the same treatment as under Geneva accords.


WASHINGTON — Calling for a change in White House policy, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has asked President Bush to ensure that international rules of war govern the treatment of 460 suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who have been captured in Afghanistan and are in U.S. custody, administration officials said Saturday.

The State Department urged the president to give the 158 detainees at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and 302 others under guard in Afghanistan the protections and treatment guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions, though not necessarily grant them the legal status of prisoners of war, officials said.

The administration has insisted that the men in custody are "unlawful combatants" who do not qualify for the legal rights and privileges required under the Geneva accords.

That determination has drawn criticism from several European allies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups. The protests escalated sharply last week after the Pentagon released a photograph of bound and shackled prisoners at Guantanamo, their heads and eyes covered, kneeling before U.S. soldiers.

The Geneva Conventions, the critics argue, provide that military captives are presumed to be prisoners of war until a court determines otherwise.

The White House has opposed conferring such formal status on the prisoners, in part because of U.S. efforts to interrogate them about Osama bin Laden and his global Al Qaeda terrorist network could be severely curtailed. Under the Geneva Conventions, POWs are required to provide only name, rank and serial number.

Administration officials on Saturday strongly denied that Powell's request to redefine the prisoners' status was an open challenge to Bush. They instead portrayed it as a creative attempt to solve a contentious situation that has drawn what they consider undue attention.

The apparent rift was a rare departure for the Bush administration, which has been successful at keeping a united front, not just since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unified the nation, but also since Bush took office a year ago. However, Powell reportedly has been at odds with the Pentagon on a range of policy decisions during that time.

The specifics of Powell's request, and the White House response, were in some dispute Saturday.

White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales wrote a four-page memorandum Friday indicating that Powell wants the president to reverse course and declare the captives prisoners of war, several officials said.

The Washington Times, which first reported the memo Saturday, said a cover letter written by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked members of the president's war cabinet to submit their views so a memorandum could be presented to Bush on Saturday afternoon.

But Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman, said the Gonzales memo was a draft and that it misstated Powell's position. He said Powell was not arguing that the detainees be declared prisoners of war, granting them protected legal status, but that they receive treatment consistent with the Geneva Conventions.

McCormack said he could not confirm that the National Security Council had met or made any new recommendations to Bush concerning the issue, but he acknowledged that there was a lively legal debate about the status of the detainees. "Terrorism is difficult," he said. "It is hard to know how to apply existing international norms to this new kind of conflict."

He took pains to argue that the debate would not materially affect the treatment of the detainees. "The real-world point here is that the detainees have been and will be treated humanely and consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention."

A senior State Department official also described the Gonzales memo as inaccurate. He said Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had not proposed giving the captives legal status as POWs.

"The issue is not whether these people are prisoners of war," the official said. "They are not. They're not going to get musical instruments or monthly paychecks or any of that. Nothing will change in their treatment."

The official said Powell is concerned that the administration not give the appearance of abandoning or ignoring the Geneva Conventions. "We're concerned about Americans operating in other circumstances. You don't want to set a precedent that the convention doesn't apply."

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to a Cincinnati audience of GOP supporters, called the detainees "really bad people" who do not qualify as prisoners of war. But he said they are being treated well. "Nobody should feel defensive or unhappy about the quality of treatment they've received. It's probably better than they deserve."

But officials from several human rights groups argued that Powell's proposed solution was no solution.

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