President Bush yesterday made clear he had rejected Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s request that captured al Qaeda and Taliban fighters be declared prisoners of war, although the president was considering a compromise.
Mr. Bush said he might agree to declare the guerrillas “noncombatants under the Geneva convention,” which would afford them greater protections in interrogations. But even that concession to Mr. Powell seemed unlikely.
“These are killers; these are terrorists,” the president said after receiving conflicting advice on the issue during a meeting of the National Security Council. “They’re illegal combatants.”
On Friday, White House Counsel Al Gonzales told Mr. Bush that Mr. Powell disagreed with the president’s week-old decision to deny the fighters the status of prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
“The Secretary of State has requested that you reconsider that decision,” Mr. Gonzales wrote in a memo to the president, which was published the next day by The Washington Times.
The disclosure of a major policy dispute within the Bush administration sent White House aides scrambling to downplay Mr. Powell’s disagreement. It also prompted some Cabinet officials to publicly reaffirm the president’s original decision, which had the effect of isolating Mr. Powell.
“They are not POWs,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted after touring their detention facility in Cuba over the weekend. “They will not be determined to be POWs.”
In its story on Saturday, The Times also published a memo from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to Mr. Powell and the other members of the National Security Council (NSC), advising them that “this issue will be discussed at the NSC meeting on Monday.”
Yesterday after the meeting, the Times asked White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to confirm that Mr. Powell and the president had a difference of opinion.
“The president always wants to encourage people in his Cabinet to come to him with their opinions and thoughts and do so in a manner that will respect their privacy, so he can get more of it,” Mr. Fleischer replied.
“That’s not my position to explain to you what any individuals say at a National Security Council meeting. I want to find that line to be helpful to you, to let you know something that took place at the NSC this morning.”
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined “to get into the internal positions that people have taken in various discussions.”
“This is a legal issue that we do feel needs to be resolved,” he said. “It basically gets down to explaining exactly in legal terms why these people are not prisoners of war. Everybody agrees they’re not.
“Different people in the administration have come to that conclusion in different ways, through different legal analysis,” he added. “And we’re trying to harmonize that.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke was equally nonspecific.
“We’re in a very unconventional war,” she said. “So every aspect of it, including the Geneva Convention and how it might be applied, should be looked at with new eyes and new thoughts as to what we’re experiencing right now.”
But Mr. Bush said yesterday that the Geneva Convention embodies “a very important principle” that is “not outdated.”
“We are adhering to the spirit of the Geneva Convention,” Mr. Bush said during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai.
“We’re giving them medical care; they’re being well-treated,” the president said. “There’s no evidence that we’re treating them outside the spirit of the Geneva Convention, and for those who say we are, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The president emphasized that regardless of whether the prisoners were granted status as noncombatants under the Geneva Convention, they would not be classified as prisoners of war, which would give them more rights.
“We are not going to call them prisoners of war in either case,” he said. “And the reason why is al Qaeda is not a known military.”
He added: “They know no countries. And the only thing they know about countries is when they find a country that’s been weak … they want to occupy it like a parasite.”
Mr. Bush called the captured guerrillas “prisoners” several times before correcting himself and declaring them “detainees” during his appearance in the Rose Garden.
After receiving conflicting legal opinions yesterday from Mr. Gonzales and attorneys for the State Department, the president said he would take the matter under advisement.
“I’ll listen to all the legalisms and announce my decision when I make it,” the president said. “I’ll make my decision on how to legally interpret the situation there pretty soon.”
White House aides said the decision was as much about politics and diplomacy as it was about international law.
Mr. Powell made no public comments yesterday. Since the beginning of the Bush administration, he has been portrayed in the press as out of step with Mr. Rumsfeld and other, more-conservative members of the national security team. But hard evidence of that rift was not disclosed until Saturday’s publication of internal White House memos by The Times.
Rowan Scarborough and Bill Gertz contributed to this article.