WASHINGTON — White House officials considered trying to rewrite the international treaties signed more than half a century ago protecting certain wartime prisoners from mistreatment, senators were told Thursday.
That revelation came during testimony by Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s choice as attorney general, whose conclusion as White House counsel that the Geneva Convention did not apply to suspected terrorists has prompted Democrats and human rights advocates to question his suitability as head of the Justice Department.
It marked the first time that an administration official had acknowledged a desire to change the international laws of war following the 2001 terrorist attacks — the same laws that critics accuse the administration of flouting in its pursuit of Al Qaeda.
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“We are fighting a new type of enemy and a new type of war,” Gonzales said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, responding to questions from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Geneva was ratified in 1949 … and I think it is appropriate to revisit whether or not Geneva should be revisited.
“Now I’m not suggesting that the principles of Geneva regarding basic treatment — basic decent treatment of human beings — should be revisited,” he added. “… That should always be the basis on which we look at this.
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“But I am aware there’s been some very preliminary discussion as to whether or not — is this something that we ought to look at.”
Gonzales’ approach to the Geneva treaty has come under fire since he prepared a memo concluding that the prohibitions on torture did not apply to suspected terrorists being questioned by the U.S. military.
He had previously described the Geneva Convention as “quaint” and “obsolete,” but under intense questioning Thursday repudiated those remarks.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan later said that Gonzales was referring to “some preliminary staff-level discussions” about recommendations from groups, such as the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, that the government develop a “new legal standard or new rules for detainees in the war on terrorism.”
Gonzales did not elaborate on exactly what changes were considered. He said such discussions were not continuing.
To administration critics, Gonzales’ remarks provided a glimpse into U.S. government strategy in a post-Sept. 11 environment, suggesting that the administration was initially concerned that the Geneva Convention could interfere with anti-terrorism efforts.
“It offers you an insight into the core of their early thinking, and does explain why they made some of the decisions that they did,” said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for the human rights organization Amnesty International. “The debate about whether the Geneva Convention could be revised sprang not out of a desire to improve their protections, but of course to weaken them.”
Experts say that global political realities make rewriting the Geneva Convention a near impossibility. Even winning minor changes could take decades.
“It would be mission impossible given how little moral authority the Bush administration has on these questions,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.