Published on
the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Bush Tampers with War Prisoner Rights

Why does the Bush administration insist on tinkering with the long-established laws on military conduct and treaties of this land?

Bush administration officials are drafting amendments to the 1996 War Crimes Act to immunize political appointees, CIA officials and former military personnel from criminal prosecution for humiliating or degrading treatment of prisoners of war.

The War Crimes Act makes it a felony to violate the Geneva Conventions. Those treaties govern military conduct in wartime and were ratified in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II.

The administration's proposed amendments would reduce the number of acts against detainees subject to criminal prosecution.

The administration seems most concerned about Common Article 3 of the Conventions that bars "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

Officials are concerned that revelations about U.S. use of leashed dogs lunging at detainees during interrogation, forcing male prisoners to wear feminine underwear, and nakedness might fall into the category of "outrages upon personal dignity" and give rise to prosecution in the aftermath of the scandals at Abu Ghraib prisons.

Perhaps they fear future accountability.

Since his administration has been tainted by accusations of torture and reports of CIA-run secret prisons abroad, Bush should be thinking of ways to resurrect America's damaged worldwide reputation for compassion and humanity rather than designing end runs around our legal commitments.

The accords are a two-way street because they also determine how other nations treat American prisoners. This explains why top U.S. military officials get anxious whenever Bush administration civilian officials start tinkering with the rights of prisoners of war.

The administration ignored the Geneva Conventions after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales concluded they were "obsolete" and "quaint" when he was the chief lawyer in the White House. President Bush went along with those descriptions.

That stance has changed after the Supreme Court in June rebuked the administration for failing to abide by the Geneva Conventions. The justices said prisoners captured in the struggle against al-Qaida terrorism were entitled to protections.

And that has led to the proposed changes in the law.

Gonzales recently testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the phrase "outrages upon personal dignity" is ambiguous and handicaps those fighting terrorism.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a POW during the Vietnam War, disagreed, telling the Senate hearing that top military lawyers see no problem in complying with Common Article 3 and did not think it would impede their work.

We don't know how much -- if any -- information has been extracted under coercive interrogations from terrorist suspects picked up after 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We may never know.

The draft amendments have not been officially released but are part of the administration's planned response to the Supreme Court's decision that threw out Bush's plan to put detainees on trial before special commissions that had never been authorized by Congress.

The justices ruled that detainees must be tried by a "regularly constituted court affording all judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

It's good to see the court challenge the we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude that imbues this administration.

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas was an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. Among other books, she was the author of Front Row at The White House: My Life and Times. Helen passed away on July 20, 2013.

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