The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans “humiliating and degrading treatment,” according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.
The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military’s decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.
For more than a year, the Pentagon has been redrawing its policies on detainees, and intends to issue a new Army Field Manual on interrogation, which, along with accompanying directives, represents core instructions to U.S. soldiers worldwide.
The process has been beset by debate and controversy, and the decision to omit Geneva protections from a principal directive comes at a time of growing worldwide criticism of U.S. detention practices and the conduct of American forces in Iraq.
The directive on interrogation, a senior defense official said, is being rewritten to create safeguards so that all detainees are treated humanely but can still be questioned effectively.
President Bush’s critics and supporters have debated whether it is possible to prove a direct link between administration declarations that it will not be bound by Geneva and events such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha, allegedly by Marines.
But the exclusion of the Geneva provisions may make it more difficult for the administration to portray such incidents as aberrations. And it undercuts contentions that U.S. forces follow the strictest, most broadly accepted standards when fighting wars.
“The rest of the world is completely convinced that we are busy torturing people,” said Oona A. Hathaway, an expert in international law at Yale Law School. “Whether that is true or not, the fact we keep refusing to provide these protections in our formal directives puts a lot of fuel on the fire.”
The detainee directive was due to be released in late April along with the Army Field Manual on interrogation. But objections from several senators on other Field Manual issues forced a delay. The senators objected to provisions allowing harsher interrogation techniques for those considered unlawful combatants, such as suspected terrorists, as opposed to traditional prisoners of war.
The lawmakers say that differing standards of treatment allowed by the Field Manual would violate a broadly supported anti-torture measure advanced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain last year pushed Congress to ban torture and cruel treatment and to establish the Army Field Manual as the standard for treatment of all detainees. Despite administration opposition, the measure passed and became law.
For decades, it had been the official policy of the U.S. military to follow the minimum standards for treating all detainees as laid out in the Geneva Convention. But, in 2002, Bush suspended portions of the Geneva Convention for captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush’s order superseded military policy at the time, touching off a wide debate over U.S. obligations under the Geneva accord, a debate that intensified after reports of detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Among the directives being rewritten following Bush’s 2002 order is one governing U.S. detention operations. Military lawyers and other defense officials wanted the redrawn version of the document known as DoD Directive 2310, to again embrace Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.
That provision -- known as a “common” article because it is part of each of the four Geneva pacts approved in 1949 -- bans torture and cruel treatment. Unlike other Geneva provisions, Article 3 covers all detainees -- whether they are held as unlawful combatants or traditional prisoners of war. The protections for detainees in Article 3 go beyond the McCain amendment by specifically prohibiting humiliation, treatment that falls short of cruelty or torture.
The move to restore U.S. adherence to Article 3 was opposed by officials from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and by the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, government sources said. David S. Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, said it would restrict the United States’ ability to question detainees.
The Pentagon tried to satisfy some of the military lawyers’ concerns by including some protections of Article 3 in the new policy, most notably a ban on inhumane treatment, but refused to embrace the actual Geneva standard in the directive it planned to issue.
The military lawyers, known as judge advocates general, or JAGs, have concluded that they will have to wait for a new administration before mounting another push to link Pentagon policy to the standards of Geneva.
“The JAGs came to the conclusion that this was the best they can get,” said one participant familiar with the Defense Department debate who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the protracted controversy. “But it was a massive mistake to have withdrawn from Geneva. By backing away, you weaken the proposition that this is the baseline provision that is binding to all nations.”
Derek P. Jinks, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law and the author of a forthcoming book on Geneva called “The Rules of War,” said the decision to remove the Geneva reference from the directive showed the administration still intended to push the envelope on interrogation.
“We are walking the line on the prohibition on cruel treatment,” Jinks said. “But are we really in search of the boundary between the cruel and the acceptable?”
The military has long applied Article 3 to conflicts -- including civil wars -- using it as a minimum standard of conduct, even during peacekeeping operations. The old version of the U.S. directive on detainees says the military will “comply with the principles, spirit and intent” of the Geneva Convention.
But top Pentagon officials now believe common Article 3 creates an “unintentional sanctuary” that could allow Al Qaeda members to keep information from interrogators.
“As much as possible, the foundation is Common Article 3. That is the foundation,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the new policies had not been made public. “But there are certain things unlawful combatants are not entitled to.”
Another defense official said that Article 3 prohibitions against “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” could be interpreted as banning well-honed interrogation techniques.
Many intelligence soldiers consider questioning the manhood of male prisoners to be an effective and humane technique. Suggesting to a suspected insurgent that he is “not man enough” to have set an improvised explosive device sometimes elicits a full description of how they emplaced the bomb, soldiers say.
The Pentagon worries that if Article 3 were incorporated in the directive, detainees could use it to argue in U.S. courts that such techniques violate their personal dignity.
“Who is to say what is humiliating for Sheikh Abdullah or Sheikh Muhammad?” the second official asked. “If you punch the buttons of a Muslim male, are you at odds with the Geneva Convention?”
Military officials also worry that following Article 3 could force them to end the practice of segregating prisoners. The military says that there is nothing inhumane about putting detainees in solitary confinement, and that it allows inmates to be questioned without coordinating their stories with others.
Human rights groups have their doubts, saying that isolating people for months at a time leads to mental breakdowns.
“Sometimes these things sound benign, but there is a reason they have been prohibited,” said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International. “When you talk about putting people in isolation for eight months, 14 months, it leads to mental degradation.”
Jinks, of the University of Texas, contends that Article 3 does not prohibit some of the things the military says it wants to do. “If the practice is humane, there is nothing to worry about,” he said.
Defense officials said the State Department and other agencies had argued that adopting Article 3 would put the U.S. government on more solid “moral footing,” and make U.S. policies easier to defend abroad.
Some State Department officials have told the Pentagon that incorporating Geneva into the new directive would show American allies that the American military is following “common standards” rather than making up its own rules. Department officials declined to comment for this article about the directive or their discussions with the Pentagon.
Common Article 3 was originally written to cover civil wars, when one side of the conflict was not a state and therefore could not have signed the Geneva Convention.
In his February 2002 order, Bush wrote that he determined that “Common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees, because, among other reasons, the relevant conflicts are international in scope and Common Article 3 applies only to ‘armed conflict not of an international character.’ ”
Some legal scholars say Bush’s interpretation is far too narrow. Article 3 was intended to apply to all wars as a sort of minimum set of standards, and that is how Geneva is customarily interpreted, they say.
But top administration officials contend that after the Sept. 11 attacks, old customs do not apply, especially to a fight against terrorists or insurgents who never play by the rules.
“The overall thinking,” said the participant familiar with the defense debate, “is that they need the flexibility to apply cruel techniques if military necessity requires it.”