Memorandum from Alberto R. Gonzales to the President
Decision re: Application of the Geneva Conventions to the Conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban January 25, 2002
1/25/2002, 3:30 p.m.
January 25, 2002
MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT
FROM: ALBERTO R. GONZALES
SUBJECT: DECISION RE APPLICATION OF THE GENEVA
CONVENTION ON PRISONERS OF WAR TO
THE CONFLICT WITH AL QAEDA AND THE
On January 18, I advised you that the Department of Justice had issued a formal legal opinion concluding that the Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War (GPW) does not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda. I also advised you that DOJ’s opinion concludes that there are reasonable grounds for you to conclude that GPW does not apply with respect to the conflict with the Taliban. I understand that you decided that GPW does not apply and, accordingly, that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees are not prisoners of war under the GPW. The Secretary of State has requested that you reconsider that decision. Specifically, he has asked that you conclude that GPW does apply to both al Qaeda and the Taliban. I understand, however, that he would agree that al Qaeda and Taliban fighters could be determined not to be prisoners of war (POWs) but only on a case-by-case basis following individual hearings before a military board.
This memorandum outlines the ramifications of your decision and the Secretary’s request for reconsideration.
As an initial matter, I note that you have the constitutional authority to make the determination you made on January 18 that the GPW does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban. (Of course, you could nevertheless, as a matter of policy, decide to apply the principles of GPW to the conflict with al Qaeda and the Taliban.) The Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice has opined that, as a matter of international and domestic law, GPW does not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda. OLC has further opined that you have the authority to determine that GPW does not apply to the Taliban. As I discussed with you, the grounds for such a determination may include:
- A determination that Afghanistan was a failed state because the Taliban did not exercise full control over the territory and people, was not recognized by the international community, and was not capable of fulfilling its international obligations (e.g., was in widespread material breach of its international obligations).
- A determination that the Taliban and its forces were, in fact, not a government, but a militant, terrorist-like group.
OLC’s interpretation of this legal issue is definitive. The Attorney General is charged by statute with interpreting the law for the Executive Branch. This interpretive authority extends to both domestic and international law. He has, in turn, delegated this role to OLC. Nevertheless, you should be aware that the Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State has expressed a different view.
Ramifications of Determination that GPW Does Not Apply
The consequences of a decision to adhere to what I understood to be your earlier determination that the CPW does not apply to the Taliban include the following:
- Preserves flexibility
- As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for GPW. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes such as wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.
- Although some of these provisions do not apply to detainees who are not POWs, a determination that GPW does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban eliminates any argument regarding the need for case-by-case determinations of POW status. It also holds open options for the future conflicts in which it may be more difficult to determine whether an enemy force as a whole meets the standard for POW status.
- By concluding that GPW does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban, we avoid foreclosing options for the future, particularly against nonstate actors.
- Substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441).
- That statute, enacted in 1996, prohibits the commission of a “war crime” by or against a U.S. person, including U.S. officials. “War crime” for these purposes is defined to include any grave breach of GPW or any violation of common Article 3 thereof (such as “outrages against personal dignity”). Some of these provisions apply (if the GPW applies) regardless of whether the individual being detained qualifies as a POW. Punishments for violations of Section 2441 include the death penalty. A determination that the GPW is not applicable to the Taliban would mean that Section 2441 would not apply to actions taken with respect to the Taliban.
- Adhering to your determination that GPW does not apply would guard effectively against misconstruction or misapplication of Section 2441 for several reasons.
- First, some of the language of the GPW is undefined (it prohibits, for example, “outrages upon personal dignity” and “inhuman treatment”), and it is difficult to predict with confidence what actions might be deemed to constitute violations of the relevant provisions of GPW.
- Second, it is difficult to predict the needs and circumstances that could arise in the course of the war on terrorism.
- Third, it is difficult to predict the motives of prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges base on Section 2441. Your determination would create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would provide a solid defense to any future prosecution.
On the other hand, the following arguments would support reconsideration and reversal of your decision that the GPW does not apply to either al Qaeda or the Taliban:
- Since the Geneva Conventions were concluded in 1949, the United States has never denied their applicability to either U.S. or opposing forces engaged in armed conflict, despite several opportunities to do so. During the last Bush Administration, the United States stated that it “has a policy of applying the Geneva Conventions of 1949 whenever armed hostilities occur with regular foreign armed forces, even if arguments could be made that the threshold standards for the applicability of the Conventions…are not met.”
- The United States could not invoke the GPW if enemy forces threatened to mistreat or mistreated U.S. or coalition forces captured during operations in Afghanistan, or if they denied Red Cross access or other POW privileges.
- The War Crimes Act could not be used against the enemy, although other criminal statutes and the customary law of war would still be available. • Our position would likely provoke widespread condemnation among our allies and in some domestic quarters, even if we make clear that we will comply with the core humanitarian principles of the treaty as a matter of policy.
- Concluding that the Geneva Convention does not apply may encourage other countries to look for technical “loopholes” in future conflicts to conclude that they are not bound by GPW either.
- Other countries may be less inclined to turn over terrorists or provide legal assistance to us if we do not recognize a legal obligation to comply with the GPW.
- A determination that GPW does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries.
Responses to Arguments for Applying GPW to the al Qaeda and the Taliban
On balance, I believe that the arguments for reconsideration and reversal are unpersuasive.
The argument that the U.S. has never determined that GPW did not apply is incorrect. In at least one case (Panama in 1989) the U.S. determined that GPW did not apply even though it determined for policy reasons to adhere to the convention. More importantly, as noted above, this is a new type of warfare—one not contemplated in 1949 when the GPW was framed—and requires a new approach in our actions towards captured terrorists. Indeed, as the statement quoted from the administration of President George Bush makes clear, the U.S. will apply GPW “whenever hostilities occur with regular foreign armed forces.” By its terms, therefore, the policy does not apply to a conflict with terrorists, or with irregular forces, like the Taliban, who are armed militants that oppressed and terrorized the people of Afghanistan.
- In response to the argument that we should decide to apply GPW to the Taliban in order to encourage other countries to treat captured U.S. military personnel in accordance with the GPW, it should be noted that your policy of providing humane treatment to enemy detainees gives us the credibility to insist on like treatment for our soldiers. Moreover, even if GPW is not applicable, we can still bring war crimes charges against anyone who mistreats U.S. personnel. Finally, I note that our adversaries in several recent conflicts have not been deterred by GPW in their mistreatment of captured U.S. personnel, and terrorists will not follow GPW rules in any event.
- The statement that other nations would criticize the U.S. because we have determined that GPW does not apply is undoubtedly true. It is even possible that some nations would point to that determination as a basis for failing to cooperate with us on specific matters in the war against terrorism. On the other hand, some international and domestic criticism is already likely to flow from your previous decision not to treat the detainees as POWs. And we can facilitate cooperation with other nations by reassuring them that we fully support GPW where it applicable and by acknowledging that in this conflict the U.S. continues to respect other recognized standards.
- In the treatment of detainees, the U.S. will continue to be constrained by (i) its commitment to treat the detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of GPW, (ii) its applicable treaty obligations, (iii) minimum standards of treatment universally recognized by the nations of the world, and (iv) applicable military regulations regarding the treatment of detainees.
- Similarly, the argument based on military culture fails to recognize that our military remain bound to apply the principles of GPW because that is what you have directed them to do.
Available at http://www.why-war.com/files/
Memorandum from Colin L. Powell
to Alberto R. Gonzales (Counsel to the President) and
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
Condoleezza Rice January 26, 2002
TO: Counsel to the President
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
FROM: Colin L. Powell
SUBJECT: Draft Decision Memorandum for the President on the Applicability of the Geneva Convention to the Conflict in Afghanistan
I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the draft memorandum. I am concerned that draft does not squarely present to the President the options that are available to him. Nor does it identify the significant pros and cons of each option. I hope that the final memorandum will make clear that the President’s choice is between
Option 1: Determine that the Geneva Convention on the treatment of Prisoners of War (GPW) does not apply to the conflict on “failed State” or some other grounds. Announce this position publicly. Treat all detainees consistent with the principles of the GPW;
Option 2: Determine that the Geneva Convention does apply to the conflict in Afghanistan, but that members of al Qaeda as a group and the Taliban individually or as a group are not entitled to Prisoner of War status under the Convention. Announce this position publicly. Treat all detainees consistent with the principles of the GPW.
The final memorandum should first tell the President that both options have the following advantages—that is there is no difference between them in these respects:
- Both provide the same practical flexibility in how we treat detainees, including with respect to interrogation and length of the detention.
- Both provide flexibility to provide conditions of detention and trial that take into account constraints such as feasibility under the circumstances and necessary security requirements.
- Both allow us not to give the privileges and benefits of POW status to al Qaeda and Taliban.
- Neither option entails any significant risk of domestic prosecution against U.S. officials.
The memorandum should go on to identify the separate pros and cons of the two options as follows:
Option 1—Geneva Convention does not apply to the conflict
- This is an across-the-board approach that on its face provides maximum flexibility, removing any question of case-by-case determination for individuals.
- It will reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific context and in general.
- It has a high cost in terms of negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences for our conduct of foreign policy.
- It will undermine public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain.
- Europeans and others will likely have legal problems with extradition or other forms of cooperation in law enforcement, including in bringing terrorists to justice.
- It may provoke some individual foreign prosecutors to investigate and prosecute our officials and troops.
- It will make us more vulnerable to domestic and international legal challenge and deprive us of important legal options:
- It undermines the President’s Military Order by removing an important legal basis for trying the detainees before Military Commissions.
- We will be challenged in international fora (UN Commission on Human Rights; World Court; etc.).
- The Geneva Conventions are a more flexible and suitable legal framework than other laws that would arguably apply (customary international human rights, human rights conventions). The GPW permits long-term detention without criminal charges. Even after the President determines hostilities have ended, detention continues if criminal investigations or proceedings are in process. The GPW also provides clear authority for transfer of detainees to third countries.
- Determining GPW does not apply deprives us of a winning argument to oppose habeas corpus actions in U.S. courts.
Option 2—Geneva Convention applies to the conflict
Comments on the Memorandum of January 25, 2002
- By providing a more defensible legal framework, it preserves our flexibility under both domestic and international law.
- It provides the strongest legal foundation for what we actually intend to do.
- It present a positive international posture, preserves U.S. credibility and moral authority by taking the high ground, and puts us in a better position to demand and receive international support.
- It maintains POW status for U.S. forces, reinforces the importance of the Geneva Conventions, and generally supports the U.S. objective of ensuring its forces are accorded protection under the Convention.
- It reduces the incentives for international criminal investigations directed against U.S. officials and troops.
- If, for some reason, a case-by-case review is used for Taliban, some may be determined to be entitled to POW status. This would not, however, affect their treatment as a practical matter. • I hope that you can restructure the memorandum along these lines, which it seems to me will give the President a much clearer understanding of the options available to him and their consequences. Quite aside from the need to identify options and their consequences more clearly, in its present form, the draft memorandum is inaccurate or incomplete in several respects. The most important factual errors are identified on the attachment.
(Second paragraph) The Secretary of State believes that al Qaeda terrorists as a group are not entitled to POW status and that Taliban fighters could be determined not to be POWs either as a group or on a case-by-case basis.
(First bullet) The Memorandum should note that any determination that Afghanistan is a failed state would be contrary to the official U.S. government position. The United States and the international community have consistently held Afghanistan to its treaty obligations and identified it as a party to the Geneva Conventions.
(Second paragraph) The Memorandum should note that the OLC interpretation does not preclude the President from reaching a different conclusion. It should also note that the OLC opinion is likely to be rejected by foreign governments and will not be respected in foreign courts or international tribunals which may assert jurisdiction over the subject matter. It should also note that OLC views are not definitive on the factual questions which are central to its legal conclusions.
Ramifications of Determination that GPW Does Not Apply
(Positive) The Memorandum identifies several positive consequences if the President determines the GPW does not apply. The Memorandum should note that those consequences would result equally if the President determines that the GPW does apply but that the detainees are not entitled to POW status.
(Negative. First bullet) The first sentence is correct as it stands. The second sentence is taken out of context and should be omitted. The U.S. position in Panama was that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions did apply.
Response to Arguments for Applying GPW to the al Qaeda and the Taliban
(First bullet) The assertion in the first sentence is incorrect. The United States has never determined that the GPW did not apply to an armed conflict in which its forces have been engaged. With respect to the third sentence, while no one anticipated the precise situation that we face, the GPW was intended to cover all types of armed conflict and did not by its terms limit its application.
(Fourth bullet) The point is not clear. If we intend to conform our treatment of the detainees to universally recognized standards, we will be complying with the GPW.
Available at http://www.why-war.com/files/