Friday, September 15, 2006

Tony Snow and Press Spar: 'Torture' For All of Them

Editor and Publisher
Tony Snow and Press Spar: 'Torture' For All of Them
By E&P Staff

NEW YORK Tony Snow conducted one of his most fascinating briefings today in his relatively short time as White House press secretary.

Most of it had to do with the administration's attempt to redefine -- or as it claims, simply make clearer -- certain key parts of the Geneva Convention's rules on torture and interrogation. In the course of it, Snow charged that former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had just written a letter critical of this move, was "confused" about the matter, and several key GOP senators, including John McCain, similarly not on the right path.

It seemed reasonable enough -- if one can ignore the fact that the Geneva prohibitions have lasted almost 60 years without others feeling a crying need to clarify or re-define them, perhaps because doing so, critics charge, opens it up for everyone else, including some really bad guys, to come up with their own standards, endangering our captured soldiers.

Snow said the issue had never "come up" before. Does this mean we never tried to raise the questions before because we had never felt an urge to torture previously? Or what?

Here are some excerpts.


Q The critics of this, Republicans that you've talked about, think that you are seeking to alter Article III, because you are, in effect, lowering the standards of Article III by the elimination of this language.

MR. SNOW: No, it's a straw man. As a matter of fact, what we're trying to do is we're trying to reach out and work with them to come up with the issues. ...

Q Right. But in your attempt to redefine it --

MR. SNOW: No, it's to define it.

Q Well, right, but that's your interpretation of it. But you're defining it in a way that does not address "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating --

MR. SNOW: Sure, it does.

Q -- and degrading treatment" because you find that to be vague?

MR. SNOW: No, all of it is vague, and therefore, what you do is you try to provide some clarity by saying, here are the subset of behaviors that we think fall under those terms.

I think we're talking past each other here --

Q You claim -- all right, I'll restate the question. You claim that you are not redefining --

MR. SNOW: Right. Look at this --

Q -- Article III. Everyone who opposes you on this, from Secretary Powell, to Senator Warner, to Senator Graham, to Senator McCain, says, in effect, you are trying to redefine it by excluding language you consider vague that they think is actually important.

MR. SNOW: No, no, no -- oh, thank you, thank you. No, no, that's -- okay, thank you. No, we're not excluding it. We're defining what that language means, so, heart be still. No, the fact is the language is vague, and so nobody knows exactly what would be prohibited or not prohibited under it.

And we're saying, no, here are the things that ought to be prohibited under it. And that's an important point, and I'm glad you asked, because I didn't quite understand. We're saying that the language is vague, and therefore you define it by putting together the proper framework for saying, I'm sorry, if you do this, you're guilty of cruel and inhumane treatment -- or cruel and degrading treatment. You are in violation of Common Article III if you do the following, and the following are the things that are specified in the Detainee Treatment Act. ...

Q I'm asking you if you want to replace the --

MR. SNOW: Okay, well, that's what we're trying to do -- we're not trying to replace. The fact is these terms for the purposes of enactment and implementation, for the purposes of the people who are out in the field trying to do interrogation, it has absolutely no meat on the bones. There is no specification of which methods are legal and which are not, which approaches are, which are not, what activities would constitute cruel and inhumane or degrading treatment and which would not. What we're trying to say is, no, guys, we'll tell you what is, and we'll do it in the context of a law that you've already passed and is already operative.

Q Does that not invite other countries to do the same, to have other interpretations of Article III?

MR. SNOW: What it allows every country to do is to have an interpretation. Our European allies don't have an interpretation.

Q And your critics say that's bad for U.S. troops if you allow those kinds of interpretations.

MR. SNOW: No, I think just the opposite. As a matter of fact, the five guys who are Judge Advocates General right now say we need it. The people who interpret the law, the people who serve as the chief legal officers within the Pentagon themselves say we need it. ..

Q Tony, I'm confused. Everybody I talked to today on the Hill says, look, you've had the Geneva Conventions in place since 1947. This isn't the Migratory Birds Treaty we're talking about. This is the Geneva Conventions.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q And it's a very simple argument. We don't want to talk about the definition of amend or change, but that it stands on its own as written, hasn't been tinkered with since 1947, doesn't need to be tinkered with now. So if that seems to be the position from a former JAG and a former POW and a former Secretary of the Navy, where's the room to work anything out?

MR. SNOW: Well, I think there is. For instance, in 1987, we didn't know what the Genocide Convention said, so we passed a law to deal with it.

Q Not the Geneva Conventions.

MR. SNOW: It appears. Yes, the Geneva Convention.

Q But not Article -- it has nothing with this specific article --

MR. SNOW: Well, that's because Common Article III had never been construed as applying to any conflict in which the United States had ever been a party. And furthermore, it has not been construed as applying to conflicts for the most part that afflicted any of our allies, to which they've been a party. It is something that they had never had to think about, and for which there was not a substantial and settled body of law that would define what the terms mean. And this is a key point. Nobody has defined in law what the terms mean. And we think it's important not only that we define what the terms mean, but that our -- the people who are working for us, either as soldiers in the field, or those who are doing the questioning for the CIA, they have to know that it passes constitutional muster, and it is defined and approved as abiding by our international treaty obligations.

The reason nobody talked about this from 1948 is, it hadn't come up. And there are times -- you'll be surprised to know --

Q There's been a lot of wars.

MR. SNOW: But, you know what, Helen, it didn't apply to most of those wars. It didn't apply to most of those wars which is why people have not asked the questions.

Q This seems -- hang on a second -- this seems to be --

MR. SNOW: Well, and let me just make the point here, the predicate of your question was, it had been sitting around and everybody knew what the meaning was, and the fact is, nobody knew what the meaning was.

Q That's not my reading of it. That's what's coming off of the Hill, so if this sounds eminently reasonable, what you're explaining --

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q And so you have these guys with a little bit of experience and certainly their own perspectives that have been developed by very direct experience with this stuff, they're saying, you know what, not so reasonable; we don't need to do this.

MR. SNOW: Well, again, I think it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think people are still talking about it.

Q Why use U.S. law when this is an international convention, international document --

MR. SNOW: Because -- precisely because you do -- I think if you put before the American public: do you want international tribunals that do not acknowledge U.S. law and are not answerable to U.S. citizens to define what may happen to U.S. citizens, I think they would find that unreasonable and unjust. What we do try to do is take a look in observing our treaty obligations where there is settled law, and in this particular case there is no settled law. And I would refer you, for the more nuanced portions of your questions, to the lawyers who can go through chapter and verse.

Q But I find it kind of odd that you keep talking about you're following international law, but you want to interject where it comes -- where it suits you to follow your own law?

MR. SNOW: No, no. There is no clarity on these phrases. We're not interjecting --

Q But you have the people to go through --

MR. SNOW: Will you please -- so what you're saying is, at a time like this -- will you please show me the statute that lays out precisely what these terms mean? I'd be interested in seeing it?


Q What are other countries to make of the U.S., as you put it, adding definition to the Geneva Convention? Is the U.S., in effect, saying, all the rest of you do this, too -- adversaries and friends, alike?

MR. SNOW: Look, I think this is something that we'd be -- we would not be frightened if adversaries did this. We would not be at all frightened if they did this.

I think there's a perception going around that this is going to condone and counsel all sorts of horrible treatment. It's not. And therefore, if we allow -- if we set a standard to treaty obligations that in the past have been vague -- and again, we did it with genocide; we did it with other things. This is not unusual. And I think what we're doing is setting a standard for clarity and transparency, because we do want people to know what the rules are, and the people we especially want to know what the rules are are our people going out in the field who are going to be charged with trying to bring back information and save American lives. We want it to be legal. We want it to be constitutional. We want it to be consistent with Common Article III.

E&P Staff

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