WASHINGTON – Bush administration lawyers are divided over whether the Geneva Conventions apply to hundreds of detained members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said Saturday.
But all sides do agree that the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in U.S. custody in Cuba and elsewhere are not prisoners of war, said the official, who commented on condition of anonymity.
The issue probably will be settled at a White House meeting next week as all sides attempt to agree on a unified U.S. position, the official said.
"The consensus of opinion is that the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are not POWs," Sean McCormick, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Saturday.
"There are still some issues being debated among the lawyers," he said. "It really shouldn't surprise anyone that we are working through these complex issues. This is a different kind of war. It is hard to know how to apply existing international norms to this new kind of conflict.
"The real world point is that they (the detainees) have been, are, and will be treated humanely and consistent with the principles of the Geneva Convention," McCormick said.
The State Department traditionally seeks to have the Geneva Conventions apply to detentions because it is likely to improve the prospects for decent treatment for Americans held abroad.
The effect of this position in the current case would ensure such humane treatment for the detainees even though they are not considered POWs under the convention. The U.S. official said, that however the technical issues are resolved, the detainees will be treated humanely.
President Bush has decided that the detainees are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions — which rule out trial by military tribunal — because they are terrorists, not uniformed members of a national military.
Human rights groups and some European officials have criticized living conditions accorded more than 150 detainees held in outdoor enclosures at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Washington Times reported Saturday that Secretary of State Colin Powell has asked Bush to conclude that while the Geneva Conventions apply in this case, the detainees could only be declared prisoners of war on a case-by-case basis following individual hearings by a military board.
"We welcome Secretary Powell's recognition of U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention and hope that his opinion prevails within the administration," said Paul Schulz, executive director of Humanity International.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday that the detainees are "really bad people" who don't qualify as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. He assured a Cincinnati audience of about 2,000 GOP supporters that the prisoners are receiving good food and medical care.
"Nobody should feel defensive or unhappy about the quality of treatment they've received," he said. "It's probably better than they deserve."