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U.S. Says It Will Adhere to Geneva

Though acknowledging convention protections apply to detainees, Bush hits resistance in Congress by declaring treatment won't change.

July 12, 2006|Peter Spiegel and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration acknowledged Tuesday that it was legally obligated to apply Geneva Convention protections to detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, reversing a position it has held tightly for more than four years.

But it declared that the shift would not significantly change the way it treated captives because it was already meeting that standard -- a position that put it at odds Tuesday with key Democratic as well as Republican members of Congress.

Those critics charged that the administration should ease its tough confinement tactics and drop its military commission system for trying detainees and replace it with the standard U.S. military justice system.

"If you fight that approach, it's going to be a long, hot summer," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in a tense exchange with a Justice Department official at a congressional hearing.

The conflict came as the administration and Congress prepared to respond to a landmark Supreme Court decision last month that ruled the administration's system of prosecuting detainees violated U.S. law and the Geneva Convention.

The Supreme Court ruled that the fight against Al Qaeda was covered by a portion of the convention called Common Article 3, which governs wars involving combatants not tied to nation states, and suggested that Congress impose new rules for the military trials. Tuesday's confrontation, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is expected to be repeated before other congressional committees this week and through the summer, before any possibility of a resolution.

The unexpected resistance from a bipartisan group of senators reflects a growing concern among lawmakers that treatment of detainees is becoming a foreign policy problem.

Uniformed military lawyers, who have opposed administration policies within the Pentagon over the last four years, also have convinced many lawmakers that American soldiers abroad could be at greater risk of abuse if foreign fighters captured by the U.S. were not granted internationally recognized rights.

But the rebuff also is a sign that many senators, including several Republicans, remain angry at the White House for not consulting Congress on a wide range of terrorism war policies. Similar tension erupted last year over a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ban torture in interrogations, a fight Congress ultimately won.

The decision to extend convention coverage to detainees came in a memorandum issued by Gordon England, the deputy Defense secretary. The Pentagon acknowledged that the Supreme Court decision had forced its hand, and ordered that all personnel and policies adhere to the convention's standards.

But the administration at the same time gave almost no ground. The Pentagon said that other than the military commissions struck down last month, all of its other detainee policies -- from interrogations to medical treatment -- already complied with the convention's strictures. Critics have assailed administration interrogation and detention techniques as illegal under U.S. and international law, including convention standards.

In the area of the military commission trials, the administration said it wanted to retain existing policies for dealing with detainees charged as war criminals. In the contentious Judiciary Committee hearing, administration lawyers urged Congress to pass legislation that would largely continue the system.

The insistence on sticking with the old framework was rebuffed by Graham, the congressional Republicans' point man on the issue, who angrily warned the administration that its stance "would be a mistake" and that it faced a bruising fight with Congress.

"We are not going to respond -- at least I'm not going to respond -- to some product that was enacted without any consultation," said Graham, a former military lawyer.

The administration shift on convention protections also came as Bush prepared to meet in Russia with the Group of 8 major industrial powers. European allies, including Germany, where Bush will visit before traveling to the G-8 meeting in Russia, have been critical of the U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere and its stance on the convention

Despite its shift on the convention, the administration moved to reassert its authority over detainee policy. Administration lawyers on Capitol Hill warned that the Supreme Court ruling would make it harder on soldiers.

Steven G. Bradbury, head of the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, told the Judiciary Committee that Common Article 3 was "inherently vague" on how to treat detainees and was open to multiple interpretations. Bradbury also said the article provided much more limited rights than the rest of the treaty.

The administration remained silent on whether it had agreed to extend coverage to captives believed to be held by the CIA in undisclosed locations. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

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