- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal shifted yesterday to the question of whether the Bush administration set up a legal foundation that opened the door for the mistreatment.

Within months of the September 11 attacks, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales reportedly wrote President Bush a memo about the terrorism fight and prisoners’ rights under the Geneva Conventions.

“In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions,” Mr. Gonzales wrote, according to a report in Newsweek magazine.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell “hit the roof” when he read the memo, according to the account.

The White House did not comment yesterday.

The roots of the scandal lay in a decision, approved last year by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to expand a classified operation for aggressive interrogations to Iraqi prisoners, a program that had been focused on the hunt for al Qaeda, the New Yorker magazine reported.

The Pentagon said that article was “filled with error and anonymous conjecture” and called it “outlandish, conspiratorial.”

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in a German television interview, said of the New Yorker report, “As far as we can tell, there’s really nothing to the story.”

Mr. Powell said yesterday that there were discussions at high levels inside the Bush administration last fall about information from the International Committee of the Red Cross purporting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, the focal point of the scandal.

“We knew that the ICRC had concerns, and in accordance with the manner in which the ICRC does its work, it presented those concerns directly to the command in Baghdad,” Mr. Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I know that some corrective action was taken with respect to those concerns.”

Mr. Powell added: “All of the reports we received from ICRC having to do with the situation in Guantanamo, the situation in Afghanistan or the situation in Iraq was the subject of discussion within the administration, at our principals’ committee meetings” and at National Security Council meetings.

Congressional critics suggested the administration might have unwisely imported to Iraq techniques from the war on al Qaeda.

“There is a sort of morphing of the rules of treatment,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat. “We can treat al Qaeda this way, and we can’t treat prisoners captured this way, but where do insurgents fit? This is a dangerous slope.”

The abuse scandal goes “much higher” than the young American guards watching over Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Mr. Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In early 2002, the White House announced that Taliban and al Qaeda detainees would not be afforded prisoner-of-war status, but that the United States would apply the Geneva Conventions to the war in Afghanistan.

Asked about the Gonzales memo, Mr. Powell said: “I wouldn’t comment on the specific memo without rereading it again. But … the Geneva Accord is an important standard in international law and we have to comply with it.”

Mr. Powell, interviewed from Jordan by NBC, left open the prospect of problems up the line from the prison guards who engaged in abuse.

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