Questions for the Interrogators; No Other Nation Has Sought to Narrow the Geneva Conventions' Scope by 'Clarifying' Them

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, September 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Questions for the Interrogators; No Other Nation Has Sought to Narrow the Geneva Conventions' Scope by 'Clarifying' Them


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.)

A fierce debate over military tribunals has erupted in Washington. This is great news. The American constitutional system is finally working. The idea that the war on terror should be fought unilaterally by the executive branch--a theory the Bush administration promulgated for its entire first term--has died. The secret prisons have come out of the dark. GuantAnamo will have to be closed or transformed.

The president and the legislative branch are negotiating a new system to determine the guilt or innocence of terrorism suspects, and it will have to pass muster with the courts. It is heartening as well that some of the key senators challenging the president's position are senior Republicans. Principle is triumphing over partisanship. Let's hope the debate will end with the United States' embracing a position that will allow America to reclaim the moral high ground.

The administration's policy has undergone a sea change. The executive branch has abandoned the idea that "enemy combatants"--that is, anyone so defined by the White House or Defense Department--may be locked up indefinitely without ever being charged, that secret prisons can be maintained, that congressional input or oversight is unnecessary and that international laws and treaties are irrelevant. The Geneva Conventions, in particular, were dismissed during the administration's first term by the then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales for their "quaint" protections of prisoners and "obsolete" limitations on interrogations. Donald Rumsfeld publicly announced that the Conventions no longer applied. The Bush administration's basic legal argument, formulated by officials like the Justice Department's John Yoo, was that this was a new kind of war, that the executive branch needed complete freedom and flexibility, with no checks or balances.

"There has been a paradigm shift on this whole issue," a senior administration official told me last week. "The whole legal framework that underpinned the administration's approach in the first term is gone. John Yoo's arguments are simply no longer applicable. You may disagree with where we draw the lines, but we're now using concepts, principles and approaches that are familiar, within the American legal tradition and that of other civilized nations."

The administration was forced to do much of this by the Supreme Court's recent Hamdan decision and by the bold opposition of senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. But several officials, wishing to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national-security adviser Stephen Hadley had been urging movement in this direction for some time. …

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Questions for the Interrogators; No Other Nation Has Sought to Narrow the Geneva Conventions' Scope by 'Clarifying' Them
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