Policy on Guantanamo Detainees Still Unclear

In what appeared to be a major policy shift this week, the White House let it be known it would handle suspected terrorists in U.S. custody in accord with the Geneva Conventions' guarantee of humane treatment. But President Bush did not announce this position, and some administration officials said it was not a change of policy.

The resulting confusion may not have been an accident.

The only thing clear about the White House policy on detainee treatment this week was that it's a work in progress.

On Tuesday, Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked to confirm a memo, drafted by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. It ordered the military to comply with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

"What you've got is a report on a memo that Mr. England has, as I understand it — and I'm not sure, we can double-check on it — has been circulated in draft form," Snow said.

Most of the media, including NPR, took that as confirmation.

President Bush was about to leave for a summit meeting of the eight leading industrial powers to be held in Europe, where there has long been outrage about his views on detainee rights. On Tuesday night, White House officials spoke to a few reporters emphasizing what was news in the White House position and suggesting it applied not just to military detainees but those held by U.S. intelligence agencies.

So on Wednesday morning, as the president stepped onto Air Force One, a New York Times headline told the world this: "White House Says Terror Detainees Hold Basic Rights."

That may have been a signal to one audience, but it was not the script being followed by Justice and Defense Department witnesses appearing on Capitol Hill the same day. At a hearing of the House Armed Service Committee, Steven Bradbury, of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, said applying Geneva Conventions in the war on terror could lead to charges against U.S. forces overseas.

"The application of common Article 3 will create a degree of uncertainty for those who fight to defend us from terrorist attack," Bradbury said.

That message was welcomed by conservatives on the House panel, who saw last month's Supreme Court ruling on the rights of detainees as a cue to Congress to back the president.

But it's not the only viewpoint in Congress. Two Senate committees this week also held hearings prompted by the Supreme Court ruling that suspected terrorists had to be treated as prisoners of war or be tried in a manner approved by Congress.

And at those hearings, the viewpoints of military lawyers and other government witnesses supported Geneva standards.

The White House itself seemed in no hurry to resolve the contradictions.

Jarol Manheim, a George Washington University professor who studies political communication, said this is classic behavior when a White House finds itself on the defensive.

In such a moment, Manheim said, the White House avoids broad statements in favor of some tactical muddling.

"If you're going to be going to off to Europe, and dealing with some alllies who have some reason to suport the U.S. position, and others with reason and a history of not supporting that position, you want to make it look like you're maximumly flexible," Manheim said. "On the other hand, for domestic consumption, you don't want to make it look like you're caving into the Europeans. So what you do is employ mixed messages and ambiguity. So, each audience is free to impose its own understanding of what you're saying."

Congress expects to write new rules for the treatment of detainees and send a bill to the president this fall. At that point, the complex problem of applying Geneva Conventions to the war on terror will be reduced to a single decision — to sign the bill or veto it.

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