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Army to Use Geneva Rules for Detainees

New manual eliminates secret tactics and separate standards for questioning captives.

September 06, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bowing to critics of its tough interrogation policies, the Pentagon is issuing a new Army field manual that provides Geneva Convention protections for all detainees and eliminates a secret list of interrogation tactics.

The manual, set for release today, also reverses an earlier decision to maintain two interrogation standards -- one for traditional prisoners of war and another for "unlawful combatants" captured during a conflict but not affiliated with a nation's military force. It will ban the use of such controversial methods as forcing prisoners to endure long periods of solitary confinement, using military dogs to threaten prisoners, putting hoods over inmates' heads and strapping detainees to boards and dunking them in water to simulate drowning, defense officials said.

The manual and its related policy directives -- the legal framework for interrogations -- originally were to be released in the spring. But when State Department officials and Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee raised objections, they were pulled back.

The Pentagon's decision to drop the objectionable provisions appears to mark a victory for advocates of closer U.S. adherence to the protections of the Geneva Convention, an international agreement on the treatment of prisoners and others during wartime. Human rights groups said they planned to study the manual carefully to see what parts of the international treaty it included and what it left out.

"If the new field manual embraces the Geneva Convention, it is an important return to the rule of law," said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International. "It is an important public statement."

The Army completed a version of the document over a year ago. But the manual grew in importance when Congress approved an amendment to a defense budget bill that banned torture and established the guide as the standard for treatment of detainees in all U.S. military facilities. The amendment was offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Under the new guidelines, prisoners of war -- defined as members of uniformed militaries captured on a battlefield -- may receive certain extra considerations as mandated by the Geneva Convention, such as being allowed to retain their personal effects and to refuse to answer detailed questions. But ceding to congressional demands, the manual establishes a single baseline standard of care and treatment for all detainees, regardless of their status.

"All detainees will be treated consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention," said a military official who was not allowed to discuss the manual before it was made public and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Common Article 3 -- found in each of the four Geneva pacts approved in 1949 -- prohibits torture and cruel treatment. Unlike other parts of the Geneva agreements, it covers all detainees, whether they are unlawful combatants or traditional prisoners of war.

After the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light in 2004, some Defense Department lawyers pushed to incorporate the protections of Common Article 3 into the field manual. But senior political appointees argued that doing so would tie the hands of U.S. troops by outlawing long periods of confinement or allowing detainees to accuse the military of "humiliating or degrading treatment," which is banned by the provision.

Because of those objections, senior Pentagon officials decided that the manual and the accompanying policy directives would demand that detainees be treated humanely, but would avoid any direct mention of Geneva.

But in June, the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld that the provisions of the Geneva Convention could be applied to an unconventional conflict, like the war on terrorism. The court said that Common Article 3 covered all individuals caught up in a conflict, whether part of a regular military force or not.

A little over a week later, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England issued a memorandum saying that the U.S. military would adhere to the standards in Common Article 3.

The manual's guidelines will apply to all prisoners held in Defense Department facilities and to all interrogators working there. Under the McCain amendment, the protections also will apply to CIA prisoners held in Defense Department prisons or bases.

They will not apply to CIA interrogators working in prisons run by other countries, although under the McCain amendment, those prisoners must be treated humanely and cannot be tortured.

The Pentagon had intended to keep some of its interrogation techniques classified. Some military officials believe that releasing such tactics would make it easier for terrorists to learn how to resist questioning.

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