- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

The White House insisted yesterday despite the disclosure of a contradictory internal memo that President Bush's foreign policy team still agrees that captured Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are not prisoners of war.
"All the president's advisers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, agree they are not POWs," Sean McCormick, chief spokesman for the National Security Council, said yesterday.
But an internal White House memo, disclosed yesterday by The Washington Times, clearly said that Mr. Powell has requested Mr. Bush to declare the captured Taliban and al Qaeda fighters not as detainees but as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
In a four-page internal memo, White House Special Counsel Al Gonzales told the president that Mr. Powell wants Mr. Bush to "reconsider" his Jan. 18 decision that the detainees do not qualify for prisoner of war (POW) status under the Geneva Convention.
"The secretary of state has requested that you reconsider that decision," Mr. Gonzales wrote in the memo. "Specifically, he has asked that you conclude that GPW [Geneva Convention II on the Treatment of Prisoners of War] does apply to both al Qaeda and the Taliban."
Mr. Gonzales added: "I understand, however, that he would agree that al Qaeda and Taliban fighters could be determined not to be prisoners of war, but only on a case by case basis, following individual hearings before a military board."
The State Department yesterday declined to comment on the memo or to provide Mr. Powell's opinion as to how detainees should be classified.
Asked about the memo, Mr. McCormick said it was a "draft" that "did not accurately reflect Secretary Powell's position on POWS."
"Secretary Powell's position is that [the imprisoned Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists] are not POWS," Mr. McCormick said. He added that Mr. Powell has always held that position.
Yet the memo disputes Mr. McCormick's claim, showing that there is a major dispute inside the administration on what has become one of the most contentious issues in the war in Afghanistan. Mr. Powell wants the president to reverse his position. But Mr. Gonzales, along with most if not all members of the president's national security team are urging him not to retreat, according to the memo.
Mr. McCormick said a final version of the White House memo, which he did not release, corrects the reputed inaccuracies of the "draft." The final memo, he said, "reflects the president's position" and the "consensus" opinion of all his advisers, "including Mr. Powell," that the detainees "are not POWS."
Asked how such inaccuracies came to be included in the first version of the memo, Mr. McCormick blamed it on "misunderstandings by lawyers" he declined to identify. He refused to say if Mr. Gonzales was among the lawyers who purportedly misunderstood Mr. Powell's position.
Mr. McCormick acknowledged that the "inaccurate" draft version of the memo was the one that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice sent out to senior administration officials Friday, asking for them to respond by 11 a.m. yesterday. Such an arrangement, he said, offers the opportunity for clarification, refinement, change and the correction of inaccuracies.
"What was corrected here," Mr. McCormick said, "was the idea that there is some sort of disagreement" among the top administration officials about the question of whether the 158 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters being held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba should have their status upgraded to POWs.
Mr. McCormick insists the detainees "are, have been and will be treated humanely and consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention."
"There are still some other legal issues being debated by lawyers … it's hard to know how to apply existing international norms to this new kind of conflict … the detainees are from 37 countries," said Mr. McCormick.
Mr. Bush's decision that hundreds of Taliban soldiers and al Qaeda terrorists are detainees, not prisoners of war, and thus not subject to rights in the Geneva Convention, has angered leaders of human rights organizations and some European nations. They have protested the decision and have been especially critical of living conditions for the detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo.
Supporters of the president's decision said that placing the detainees under the Geneva Convention would give them legal protections that would restrict the United States from conducting open-ended interrogations some of which have given the FBI new insights into how the al Qaeda terrorist network operates.
A senior State Department official, who requested anonymity, told the Associated Press yesterday that Bush administration lawyers are divided over whether the Geneva Convention applies to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. But the official said all sides do agree that the terrorists are not prisoners of war.
The official said the issue probably will be settled at a White House meeting this week.
The memo from Mr. Gonzales shows the president's National Security Council (NSC) plans to meet on the matter tomorrow. Mr. McCormick sought to downplay that news. He said the NSC "regularly" meets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Defense officials said yesterday that they are satisfied with the way the detainees are currently classified and treated. "At this time, we're working on legal issues to make sure we're doing things the right way, which we think we are," said Air Force Maj. Mike Halbig, a Pentagon spokesman.

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