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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
White House defends prisoner policies

By Rob Watson
BBC Washington correspondent

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay
Interrogators asked for harsher techniques at Guantanamo
This is usually one of the most secretive of American administrations.

The Bush administration does not like to make senior officials available, and it does not like making documents available.

It really is extraordinary to make available senior legal advisers, like White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales and the chief legal counsel at the Pentagon William J Haynes II.

But that is what the Bush administration did in trying to explain its policies towards prisoners captured in its war on terror.

Internal debate

The sense among those of use who report on the White House is that the reason they released these documents is that they are acutely aware of the damage done to the reputation of the US, both at home and abroad, by the prisoner scandal in Iraq.

Domestically, documents had been leaked to the press outlining the debates within the Bush administration over what could and could not be done in the course of interrogations of prisoners.

The Bush administration has genuinely had a debate over interrogation techniques in light of the unconventional nature of its war on terror.

The combatants do not wear uniforms. They are not fighting for another country.

Administration officials debated whether the Geneva Convention should apply to these combatants, what interrogation techniques were permissible and how long they could detain those captured.

Memos outlining parts of the debate had been leaked to the media.

But the administration felt that these memos gave a false picture of what actually happened.

I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time
President George Bush
Administration officials wanted to make the point in this briefing and in the release of these documents that in the end the president opted for a narrow interpretation of the law.

President Bush ruled out any form of torture for prisoners and said the Geneva Convention applied to war in Afghanistan, the officials said.

Internationally, there is no doubt that the Bush administration feels that what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad damaged the image of the US abroad.

The administration felt that the best way to deal with the fallout from Abu Ghraib was to release these documents that they say shows that the US had no intention of torturing people.

Techniques at Guantanamo

The officials were asked how they defined torture, and they said it was consistent with the definition set out by the US Congress.

US law defines torture as "the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering".

The law says torture methods include the threat of death against a person or other persons - presumably others held captive or people known to the captive - "the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality".

It is not clear that the documents or the briefings shed new light on why the abuses happened at Abu Ghraib.

Administration officials insisted that US policy had been clear right from the start that the conflict in Iraq would be covered by the Geneva Convention because it was a conventional conflict between states covered by the accords.

The administration had approved special interrogation techniques for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

Interrogators found that many of the key detainees had been trained in American interrogation techniques and knew how to resist them.

Those techniques were publicly available, and interrogators were frustrated. They asked the Pentagon to approve harsher techniques.

Administration officials insisted that the techniques approved stopped short of torture.

They also said the special techniques used Guantanamo Bay were not to be used in Iraq.

But I suspect that despite the release of these documents it will leave a lot of people in this country, especially Democrats, and people overseas unconvinced.

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