UPDATE: The new memorandum about the status of terrorist detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and elsewhere – signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England on Friday — is being widely misreported. The memo, which is reproduced in full below, doesn’t say that the terrorists are now POWs under the Geneva Conventions or that they will be afforded the full rights and protections of the Geneva Conventions.
The Bush administration said Tuesday that all detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in all other U.S. military custody around the world are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the policy, outlined in a new Defense Department memo, reflects the recent 5-3 Supreme Court decision blocking military tribunals set up by President Bush.
The policy, described in a memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, appears to reverse the administration’s earlier insistence that the detainees are not prisoners of war and thus subject to the Geneva protections.
Word of the Bush administration’s new stance came as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings Tuesday on the Guantanamo issue — which is testing unity among Republicans on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers trying to decide in an election season how military detainees should be tried and what their rights should be.
Led by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, the committee’s hearing was the first of three this week planned by congressional panels. The House and Senate Armed Services committees also were conducting hearings.
“We’re not going to give the Department of Defense a blank check,” said Specter told the hearing Tuesday.
Snow: Not a policy reversal
Snow insisted that all U.S. detainees have been treated humanely. Still, he said, “We want to get it right.”
“It’s not really a reversal of policy,” Snow asserted, calling the Supreme Court decision “complex.”
The Supreme Court ruled last month that Bush’s military commissions violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949. (Court blocks Gitmo tribunals)
He said efforts to spell out more clearly the rights of detainees do not change the president’s determination to work with Congress to enable the administration to proceed with the military tribunals, or commissions. The goal is “to find a way to properly do this in a way consistent with national security,” Snow said.
Snow said that the instruction manuals used by the Department of Defense already comply with the humane-treatment provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. They are currently being updated to reflect legislation passed by Congress and sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, to more expressly rule out torture.
“The administration intends to work with Congress,” Snow said.
“We want to fulfill the mandates of justice, making sure we find a way properly to try people who have been plucked off the battlefields who are not combatants in the traditional sense,” he said.
“The Supreme Court pretty much said it’s over to you guys (the administration and Congress) to figure out how to do this. And that is where this is headed. And we look forward to working with Congress on this.”
GOP unity to be tested
Unity among Republicans on Capitol Hill may be tested while they struggle to come up with a response to the Supreme Court ruling against the military tribunals for detainees.
Many conservatives agree that Congress must pass legislation authorizing such a system.
“There is, I think, little doubt that Congress should act and act promptly, to overrule this decision by statute,” Daniel Collins, a lawyer based in Los Angeles and a former Justice Department official in the Bush administration, said in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday to the judiciary committee.
A copy of the remarks was obtained in advance by The Associated Press.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said Monday that the Senate is unlikely to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of suspected terrorists until after Congress’s August recess.
His plan not to act until this fall pushes the issue squarely into election season, when Republicans will be seeking support from voters by arguing that they are strong on national security issues.
A June poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, before the court decision, found that 57 percent of Americans support holding suspected terrorists at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison without trial, while 37 percent oppose doing so.
Drafting a legislative package that would satisfy key House and Senate members will be a difficult task because the issue cuts across committee jurisdictions and has prompted varying opinions, even among Republicans.
Specter has already introduced his own legislation, which would authorize a tribunal system but impose requirements on the Defense Department to assure that each prisoner is afforded certain rights.
“We need to have a body of law directed at this new battlefield” against terrorists, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Lawmakers and congressional aides say there are a range of options that could be pursued, including passing legislation specifically authorizing Bush’s proposed military tribunals or setting up a system similar to military courts-martial.
Intended to protect classified information, the military tribunals would grant fewer rights to suspected terrorists. Defendants also would have limited rights to appeal.