WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell says there were high-level discussions within the Bush administration last fall about information from the International Committee of the Red Cross alleging inmate abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Powell's comments Sunday came as the scandal shifted to the question of whether the Bush administration erected a legal foundation that opened the door for the mistreatment.
Within months of the Sept. 11 attacks, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (search) 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," Gonzales wrote, according to the report in Newsweek magazine. Powell "hit the roof" when he read the memo, according to the account.
Asked about the Gonzales memo, the White House said, "It is the policy of the United States to comply with all of our laws and our treaty obligations."
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.
Regarding Red Cross complaints last fall of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Powell said on "Fox News Sunday" that "we knew that the ICRC had concerns, and in accordance with the matter in which the ICRC does its work, it presented those concerns directly to the command in Baghdad."
"And I know that some corrective action was taken with respect to those concerns," he 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.
"We were aware of them," he said.
Asked about the memo Sunday, 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."
The roots of the abuse scandal lay in a decision, approved last year by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search), to expand a classified operation for aggressive interrogations to Iraqi prisoners, a program that had been focused on the hunt for Al Qaeda (search), The New Yorker magazine reported.
The Pentagon said that story was "filled with error and anonymous conjecture" and called it "outlandish, conspiratorial." National security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search), in a German television interview, said of The New Yorker report, "As far as we can tell, there's really nothing to the story."
Congressional critics suggested the administration may 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. Joe Biden, D-Del. "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, Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the reports that Rumsfeld approved a secret program on interrogation for use in Iraq raise "this issue to a whole new level."
Asked Monday about the memo that Gonzales purportedly wrote, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar said, "Well, I would hope he didn't write it."
"On the other hand, if he did, he was wrong," Lugar said in an interview on C-SPAN.
"When we talk about the Geneva Convention as having quaint aspects to it ... a good number of people are going to look at that memo and say, 'How did that affect the Pentagon?,'" the Indiana Republican asked. "If one should shift from Geneva, and that was the order to the troops, and you begin to improvise, then the door was open" to abuses, he said. "... But that, clearly, is where the investigation is proceeding."
Asked about the memo, 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."
Powell, interviewed from Jordan by NBC, left open the possibility of problems up the line from the prison guards who engaged in abuse. "I don't see yet any indication that there was a command-climate problem higher up," the secretary said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern over the shift in responsibility for the scandal at the prison, where military intelligence personnel were given authority over the military police.
"We need to take this as far up as it goes," McCain said on "Meet the Press."
Former CIA counterterrorism official Vincent Cannistraro said it was a major miscalculation to apply interrogation methods that were specifically designed to extract information from Al Qaeda prisoners to Abu Ghraib and other holding centers inside Iraq.
"It was probably the most counterproductive move that the policy-makers could have made and it showed the complete misunderstanding of the Iraq culture," said Cannistraro.
The reasons for importing the techniques, Cannistraro said, were the frustrations at the policy level in Washington that not enough information was being obtained about weapons of mass destruction and the frustration over the lack of information about the resistance in Iraq.