June 22, 2004
WASHINGTON - The White House has decided to release a thick file of papers documenting its internal deliberations on rules for interrogating prisoners in facilities from Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The two-inch stack of papers was to be released late Tuesday. It is intended to counter what White House aides fear is a growing perception that the administration authorized torture as an interrogation technique.
"We believe it's important for the American people to have an accurate picture of the policies that we put in place and an accurate picture of the techniques that were approved by the Pentagon. It's important to set the record straight," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
President Bush "has never and has no intention of ever" authorizing torture in questioning prisoners, McClellan said.
"The president recognizes that his most important responsibility to the American people is their safety and security," McClellan said. "We are a nation that is at war but we are also a nation of laws and the president expects our government to comply with laws and our treaty obligations."
White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales intended to brief reporters on the documents.
The documents are meant to show "the White House's deliberative process" in arriving at rules for complying with the Geneva Convention and rules on interrogation techniques, one senior official said, requesting anonymity on grounds that Gonzales was to talk on the record later Tuesday.
The administration decided to release the papers to fight the "constant drip on this issue" - a continuous stream of leaks and accusations that the administration had stepped outside the bounds of international law, the official said. "Everyone reached the conclusion that the administration had authorized torture," he said.
The official, saying the United States is facing a new kind of war with an enemy that does not respect or operate under the rules of the Geneva Convention, pointed to the kidnapping and beheading of American civilian engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia last week. The papers being released Tuesday show that the White House and other agencies are wrestling with "how best to address that foe," one official said.
The documents cover a period of several months and were generated by several agencies, including the Department of Justice. One set of papers alone spans 50 pages.
Among the papers are some that have already been seen by the public, including previously confidential memos in which Justice Department lawyers concluded that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are not protected by the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war because they do not satisfy four main conditions of the treaty itself.
Democrats criticized those memos as laying the legal foundation for Iraqi prisoner abuses, but administration officials said they were aimed mainly at showing that international treaties banning torture do not apply to al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners.
At a June 10 news conference, President Bush sidestepped questions about whether he had seen or authorized the Justice Department papers.
"The authorization I issued was that anything we did would conform to U.S. law and would be consistent with international treaty obligations. That's the message I gave our people," Bush said in Savannah, Ga. "I can't remember if I've seen the memo or not, but I gave those instructions."
That memo, which surfaced earlier this month, intensified criticism from congressional Democrats and human rights activists about what they consider a concerted effort to circumvent U.S. and international laws against torture during the fight against terrorism.
Human rights lawyers took the unusual step of filing a racketeering lawsuit this month against U.S. civilian contractors who worked at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The suit alleges contractors conspired to execute, rape and torture prisoners during interrogations to boost profits from military payments.
A series of government lawyers' memos, many of them still secret but leaked to the media this month, said the president had the legal authority to allow torture of detainees during interrogations. Administration officials, however, said such a policy never was adopted.
But some of the papers to be released Tuesday have never been disclosed, a senior official said.