May 18, 2004
Newsweek wants to know:The White House’s top lawyer warned more than two years ago that U.S. officials could be prosecuted for “war crimes” as a result of new and unorthodox measures used by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, according to an internal White House memo and interviews with participants in the debate over the issue.
The concern about possible future prosecution for war crimes—and that it might even apply to Bush adminstration officials themselves— is contained in a crucial portion of an internal January 25, 2002, memo by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales obtained by NEWSWEEK. It urges President George Bush declare the war in Afghanistan, including the detention of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
In the memo, the White House lawyer focused on a little known 1996 law passed by Congress, known as the War Crimes Act, that banned any Americans from committing war crimes—defined in part as “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions. Noting that the law applies to “U.S. officials” and that punishments for violators “include the death penalty,” Gonzales told Bush that “it was difficult to predict with confidence” how Justice Department prosecutors might apply the law in the future. This was especially the case given that some of the language in the Geneva Conventions—such as that outlawing “outrages upon personal dignity” and “inhuman treatment” of prisoners—was “undefined.”
It will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva Conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general.
It has a high cost in terms of negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences for our conduct of foreign policy.
It will undermine public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain.
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