WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday he ordered U.S. officials to follow the law while interrogating suspected terrorists, but he sidestepped an opportunity to denounce the use of torture.
Bush's comments came as a 2-year-old State Department (search) document surfaced warning the White House that failing to apply international standards against torture could put U.S. troops at risk.
"What I've authorized is that we stay within U.S. law," Bush told reporters at the close of the G8 summit (search) in Savannah, Ga.
Asked if 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."
Bush's strongest condemnation on the issue of prisoner treatment has come in regard to the abuse at Abu Ghraib (search) prison in Iraq. The president has said he shared "a deep disgust" over the conduct by U.S. soldiers involved in the abuse, declaring that is "not the way we do things in America."
Bush's comments follow disclosure of Justice Department (search) memos to the White House advising the president that he could suspend international treaties prohibiting torture. The Justice Department also told the White House that U.S. laws against torture do not apply to the war on terror.
Bush said he doesn't recall seeing any of the Justice Department advice.
Democrats say that by suggesting that Bush could legally authorize torture, the memos could have laid the legal foundation for Iraqi prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
The memos say torture "may be justified" against Al Qaeda (search) 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.
After the Justice Department's first memo to the White House, the State Department responded that failing to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees from the war in Afghanistan — whether al Qaida 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," wrote State Department legal adviser William H. Taft IV in a Feb. 2, 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 State Department 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 (search) apply to Taliban prisoners but not to captured Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Bush administration has said that even though it doesn't believe the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners in the war on terror, it has complied with the treaty's guidelines.