WASHINGTON – The State Department warned the White House two years ago that rejecting international standards against torture when dealing with detainees could put U.S. troops at risk.
A department memo from Feb. 2, 2002, surfaced Thursday as President Bush said he ordered U.S. officials to follow the law while interrogating suspected terrorists. Bush sidestepped an opportunity to denounce the use of torture.
"What I've authorized is that we stay within U.S. law," Bush told reporters at the close of the G-8 summit in Georgia.
Asked whether torture is ever justified, Bush replied, "Look, I'm going to say it one more time. ... The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you."
The memo followed recommendations from the Justice Department advising the president he could suspend international treaties prohibiting torture. It warned that failing to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees from the war in Afghanistan — whether Al Qaeda or Taliban — would put U.S. troops at risk.
"A decision that the conventions do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan in which our armed forces are engaged deprives our troops there of any claim to the protection of the convention in the event they are captured," State Department legal adviser William H. Taft IV wrote in the 2002 memo to presidential counsel.
Furthermore, refusing Geneva standards to detainees "weakens protections afforded by the conventions to our troops in future conflicts," Taft wrote. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.
The Justice Department also told the White House that U.S. laws against torture do not apply to the fight against terrorism. The department memos say torture "may be justified" against Al Qaeda detainees in U.S. custody abroad and laws and treaties barring torture could be trumped by the president's supreme authority to act as necessary in wartime.
Bush said Thursday he does not recall seeing any of the Justice Department advice.
Democrats say that by suggesting that Bush could legally authorize torture, the memos would have lain the legal foundation for Iraqi prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
In its memo, the State Department also advised that following Geneva standards "demonstrates that the United States bases its conduct not just on its policy preferences, but on its international legal obligations."
Five days after the State Department memo was written, Bush decided the Geneva Conventions apply to Taliban prisoners but not to captured Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Bush administration has said that even though it does not believe the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners in the war on terror, it has complied with the treaty's guidelines.