I don't know what's more surprising here - the complete policy reversal the Pentagon memo suggests, or the fact that the White House let the Financial Times break the story rather than take the lead on announcing it.
"Pentagon to Give Rights to Detainees," by Demetri Sevastopulo and Holly Yeager (in Washington) - the Financial Times (UK), 12 July 2006 (published to website 11 July)
Prisoners held in US military custody around the world will receive some protection under the Geneva convention, the Pentagon has ruled, in a move that could affect prisoners held in secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons.
Responding to news broken on FT.com, the White House on Tuesday confirmed that Gordon England, deputy defence secretary, sent a memorandum to senior defence officials and military officers last week, telling them that Common article III of the Geneva Convention – which prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners and requires certain basic legal rights at trial – would apply to all detainees held in US military custody.
The White House insisted that the move did not represent a change in policy. But the July 7 Pentagon memo stood in stark contrast to a February 2002 memo in which President George W. Bush said: “Common article III of Geneva does not apply to either al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees.”
The policy U-turn comes on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling last month that the military commissions Mr Bush created to try prisoners at Guantánamo Bay contravened both US law and the Geneva convention.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday welcomed the “significant decision as a step towards bringing all US detentions into compliance with international law."...
I didn't find the transcript of today's press briefing posted to the White House website as of this evening.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack gave this response to a reporter's question about the Pentagon memo in the daily State press briefing:
Daily Press Briefing - Sean McCormack, Spokesman. US Department of State, Washington, DC,
July 11, 2006
QUESTION: On the Defense Department memo that Tony Snow talked about today, how involved was Secretary Rice in drafting that memo which now gives Geneva Convention protections to detainees?
MR. MCCORMACK: She certainly didn't type it up. Look, on issues, I mean --
QUESTION: Well, I --
MR. MCCORMACK: It's a Department of Defense memo. Look, she along with other members of the national security team have been involved in formulating policy on questions related to detainees since 2001 when she was in her role as National Security Advisor. It's an important issue. And she along with everybody else that was present in government at that time in leadership positions said that they were going to do everything that they could to make sure the American people weren't subject to another terrorist attack like they were on September 11th, 2001.
And the actions of Secretary Rice and the Administration since that time have been guided by that principle, but also guided by -- they've also been guided by the principle that they're not going to lose sight of who we are as Americans in our values and defending those values. And the actions that we have taken have resulted in people who have sought to do harm to the American people, as well as others -- friends and allies, get those people off the street. You see those people in Guantanamo Bay now. They are there for a reason. And the Administration has set up various processes to deal with those people. Part of that -- an important part of that in which the State Department is involved, is sending these people back to their home countries with the assurances that they're not going to -- they are not going to be mistreated, tortured and they're not going to go -- not going to be allowed to go in the front door of the jail and out the back door. So -- that they would be allowed to do harm to others at some point in the future.
The other part of that process has been subject to review by the Supreme Court and President Bush has said that the Administration is going to abide by the findings of the Supreme Court, in terms of Common Article 3, as well as how prisoners, enemy combatants are treated. As for the specifics of the memo, I would refer you over to my friends at the Department of Defense. I understand that they're also hearings that are going to be ongoing this week. You're going to have expert testimony. So there'll be ample opportunity for people to question representatives at the Department of Justice as well as the Department of Defense about the specifics of the memo and Administration policy on detainees.
QUESTION: She's had to take the brunt of the criticism that the U.S. has received when she's gone abroad. For instances, last December in Europe, there was a lot of controversy over detainee policy. So is it fair to say that she was pushing for this, the way this moved or is this just in reaction to the Supreme Court?
MR. MCCORMACK: I would say that Secretary Rice provides her best advice to the President and other members of the national security team and that advice is for the President and other members of the national security team to hear, and not talk about in public....
So much for policy coordination, I guess.
As for how other people are interpreting the memo:
"Bush Concedes That Geneva Conventions Apply in Guantanamo Prisons," by Rupert Cornwell (in Washington) - the Independent (UK), 12 July 2006 (published to website 11 July)
In a major climbdown, the Bush administration formally conceded yesterday that detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other US military prisons around the world are entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions.
The new policy, contained in a Pentagon memo from the Deputy Defence Secretary Gordon England, follows last month's 5-3 ruling by the Supreme Court declaring that the military tribunals set up to try detainees were in breach of the conventions. In doing so, the court rejected the White House claim to virtually unlimited executive power in a time of war, making clear the tribunals should have been authorised by Congress.
Ever since Guantanamo Bay opened in early 2002, the administration has contended that as "unlawful combatants", inmates did not fall within the purlieu of the conventions - even though, it claims, the detainees have always been treated as if they did apply.
Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, repeated that line yesterday. Detainees, he said, had been treated humanely. Nonetheless, "we want to get it right," he hold reporters. The memo "is not really a reversal of policy," merely a response to a "complex" decision by the court....
"Bush Extends Geneva Protections to Guantanamo Prisoners," by Beth Gorham - the Canadian Press (Washington), as carried by the Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 11 July 2006
WASHINGTON — In an abrupt reversal, prompted by a recent tongue-lashing from the Supreme Court, U.S. officials said Tuesday all detainess in the war on terror held at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere will be protected under the Geneva Conventions....
The move came as the president faced the start of a long, rough ride on Capitol Hill, where legislators opened hearings Tuesday on how detainees should be tried.
There's a lineup of military lawyers ready to testify the system is ad hoc and abusive.
Legislators are warning either the “kangaroo court” tribunals have to be substantially revamped or Bush needs to move prisoners to traditional military courts, not his preferred option.
Some human rights groups weren't persuaded the policy change would have any practical impact on about 450 Guantanamo detainees, including Canadian teenager Omar Khadr.
“I'll believe it when I see it, in terms of striking changes in practices,” said Shayana Kadidal, a staff lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York City....
In fact, this story is at least as confusing as it is big. Not everyone seems to interpret the DOD memo the same way. (There's another reason why it's surprising that the White House hasn't been more proactive in trying to steer the way the news was released.) The Washington Post has published a .pdf file of the memo to its website; take a look at it and see what you think it means.
For background, see this story from today's print edition of the Post, which appeared before the news about the DOD memo broke;
"Rethinking Embattled Tactics in Terror War," by Dana Priest - the Washington Post, 11 July 2006, p. A01 (registration required)
Five years after the attacks on the United States, the Bush administration faces the prospect of reworking key elements of its anti-terrorism effort in light of challenges from the courts, Congress and European allies crucial to counterterrorism operations.
The Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee and other members of Congress have complained about not being briefed on classified surveillance programs and huge unprecedented databases used to monitor domestic and international phone calls, faxes, e-mails and bank transfers.
European governments and three international bodies are investigating secret prisons run by the CIA, and some countries have pledged not to allow the transport of terrorism suspects through their airports.
Six European allies have demanded that President Bush shut down the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, citing violations of international law and mistreatment of detainees.
And the Supreme Court recently issued a rebuke of the military commissions created by the administration to try detainees, declaring that they violated the Geneva Conventions and were never properly authorized by Congress....