In an interview with Law.com, disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales attempts to walk back pro-torture arguments he made to President Bush, claiming that he was only criticizing isolated provisions such as “a requirement that you provide athletic uniforms, commissary privileges, scientific instruments, [and] a monthly allowance” to detainees. According to Gonzales, “I didn’t mean to say that the provisions of the Geneva Conventions requiring basic humane treatment were outdated. No, I didn’t say that.”
Gonzales’ attempt to whitewash his previous statement, however, does not jibe with the facts. Here’s what Gonzales actually wrote in a 2002 memo to President Bush:
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.
So while Gonzales did indeed criticize provisions which supposedly require the United States to provide detainees with athletic uniforms and scientific instruments, he also clearly rejects the Geneva Conventions’ limits on torture and other abusive interrogation techniques as “obsolete.”
Moreover even if Gonzales’ defense of his prior views could be taken at face value, they, at best, reveal him to be a completely incompetent attorney. Many of the provisions Gonzales labels as “quaint” simply do not exist. For example, nothing in the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War requires a detaining power to provide detainees with “athletic uniforms” or “scientific instruments.” The only provisions which even vaguely resemble such a requirement are Article 27, which mandates that detainees must be given appropriate “[c]lothing, underwear and footwear,” and Article 72, which provides that detention guards cannot seize mail sent to detainees which contains harmless items such as “scientific instruments” and “sports outfits.”
Similarly, while the Geneva Convention does include provisions requiring that detainees be given access to a kind of store, such provisions exist solely to ensure that the detainees most basic needs are met. Under the heading of “QUARTERS FOOD AND CLOTHING OF PRISONERS OF WAR,” Article 28 provides that a “canteen” must be set up in prisoner of war camps which provides necessities such as “foodstuffs” and “soap” (possibly because many prisoners of war are addicted to cigarettes when they are captured, the convention also provides for access to tobacco). To enable detainees to obtain food and soap from the canteen, Article 60 provides for prisoners to receive a modest “advance of pay.”
In other words, the “commissary” and “scrip” provided for under the Convention are really just a way of ensuring that the detainees basic needs are provided for. It is a mechanism to feed and clean detainees, not a requirement that detainee camps house their very own Wal-Mart.
Despite his attempts to whitewash the past, the meaning of Gonzales’ 2002 memo is clear. Gonzales believed that Geneva’s ban on detainee mistreatment is “render[ed] obsolete” by modern day terrorism; and he affirmatively misrepesented the contents of the Geneva Convention in a memo to the President of the United States.