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Context of 'January 25, 2002: Gonzales Recommends Retaining Decision to Declare War on Terror Exempt from Geneva Conventions'

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August 21, 1996: War Crimes Act Becomes Law

The War Crimes Act (HR 3680) becomes Public Law No: 104-192. It prohibits Americans—top officials and soldiers alike—from committing “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions. It states: “Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions,” provided that the perpetrator or the victim is a member of the US military or a national of the US, “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.” [Newsweek, 11/5/2001]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, War Crimes Act

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

John Yoo, a neoconservative lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel serving as deputy assistant attorney general, writes a classified memo to senior Pentagon counsel William J. Haynes, titled “Application of Treaties and Law to al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Yoo: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply in War on Terror - Yoo’s memo, written in conjunction with fellow Justice Department lawyer Robert Delahunty, echoes arguments by another Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, two months earlier (see November 6, 2001). Yoo states that, in his view, the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to captured Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners, nor do they apply to the military commissions set up to try such prisoners.
Geneva Superseded by Presidential Authority - Yoo’s memo goes even farther, arguing that no international laws apply to the US whatsoever, because they do not have any status under US federal law. “As a result,” Yoo and Delahunty write, “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the US armed forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In essence, Yoo and Delahunty argue that President Bush and the US military have carte blanche to conduct the global war on terrorism in any manner they see fit, without the restrictions of law or treaty. However, the memo says that while the US need not follow the rules of war, it can and should prosecute al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees for violating those same laws—a legal double standard that provokes sharp criticism when the memo comes to light in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). Yoo and Delahunty write that while this double standard may seem “at first glance, counter-intuitive,” such expansive legal powers are a product of the president’s constitutional authority “to prosecute the war effectively.” The memo continues, “Restricting the president’s plenary power over military operations (including the treatment of prisoners)” would be “constitutionally dubious.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002; US Department of Justice, 6/9/2002 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/21/2004; New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Overriding International Legal Concerns - Yoo warns in the memo that international law experts may not accept his reasoning, as there is no legal precedent giving any country the right to unilaterally ignore its commitment to Geneva or any other such treaty, but Yoo writes that Bush, by invoking “the president’s commander in chief and chief executive powers to prosecute the war effectively,” can simply override any objections. “Importing customary international law notions concerning armed conflict would represent a direct infringement on the president’s discretion as commander in chief and chief executive to determine how best to conduct the nation’s military affairs.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 146] The essence of Yoo’s argument, a Bush official later says, is that the law “applies to them, but it doesn’t apply to us.” [Newsweek, 5/21/2004] Navy general counsel Alberto Mora later says of the memo that it “espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief authority.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 181]
White House Approval - White House counsel and future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agrees (see January 25, 2002), saying, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002]
Spark for Prisoner Abuses - Many observers believe that Yoo’s memo is the spark for the torture and prisoner abuses later reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). The rationale is that since Afghanistan is what Yoo considers a “failed state,” with no recognizable sovereignity, its militias do not have any status under any international treaties. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Resistance from Inside, Outside Government - Within days, the State Department will vehemently protest the memo, but to no practical effect (see January 25, 2002).

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Taliban, John C. Yoo, Colin Powell, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Alberto Mora, US Department of State, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Siding with the Pentagon and Justice Department against the State Department, President Bush declares the Geneva Conventions invalid with regard to conflicts with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Secretary of State Colin Powell urges Bush to reconsider, saying that while Geneva does not apply to al-Qaeda terrorists, making such a decision for the Taliban—the putative government of Afghanistan—is a different matter. Such a decision could put US troops at risk. Both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman General Richard B. Myers support Powell’s position. Yet another voice carries more weight with Bush: John Yoo, a deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC—see October 23, 2001). Yoo says that Afghanistan is a “failed state” without a functional government, and Taliban fighters are not members of an army as such, but members of a “militant, terrorist-like group” (see January 9, 2002). White House counsel Alberto Gonzales agrees with Yoo in a January 25 memo, calling Yoo’s opinion “definitive.” The Gonzales memo concludes that the “new kind of war” Bush wants to fight should not be equated with Geneva’s “quaint” privileges granted to prisoners of war, or the “strict limitations” they impose on interrogations (see January 25, 2002). Military lawyers dispute the idea that Geneva limits interrogations to recitals of name, rank, and serial number, but their objections are ignored. For an OLC lawyer to override the judgment of senior Cabinet officials is unprecedented. OLC lawyers usually render opinions on questions that have already been deliberated by the legal staffs of the agencies involved. But, perhaps because OLC lawyers like Yoo give Bush the legal opinions he wants, Bush grants that agency the first and last say in matters such as these. “OLC was definitely running the show legally, and John Yoo in particular,” a former Pentagon lawyer will recall. “Even though he was quite young, he exercised disproportionate authority because of his personality and his strong opinions.” Yoo is also very close to senior officials in the office of the vice president and in the Pentagon’s legal office. [Ledger (Lakeland FL), 10/24/2004]
Undermining, Cutting out Top Advisers - Cheney deliberately cuts out the president’s national security counsel, John Bellinger, because, as the Washington Post will later report, Cheney’s top adviser, David Addington, holds Bellinger in “open contempt” and does not trust him to adequately push for expanded presidential authority (see January 18-25, 2002). Cheney and his office will also move to exclude Secretary of State Colin Powell from the decision-making process, and, when the media learns of the decision, will manage to shift some of the blame onto Powell (see January 25, 2002). [Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Final Decision - Bush will make his formal final declaration three weeks later (see February 7, 2002).

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice, Richard B. Myers, US Department of State, Taliban, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Colin Powell, Al-Qaeda, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bellinger, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales completes a draft memorandum to the president advising him not to reconsider his decision (see January 18-25, 2002) declaring Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters ineligible for prisoner of war status as Colin Powell has apparently recommended. [US Department of Justice, 1/25/2004 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/24/2004] The memo recommends that President Bush accept a recent Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo saying that the president has the authority to set aside the Geneva Conventions as the basis of his policy (see January 9, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 146]
Geneva No Longer Applies, Says Gonzales - Gonzales writes to Bush that Powell “has asked that you conclude that GPW [Third Geneva Convention] does apply to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I understand, however, that he would agree that al-Qaeda and the 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.” Powell believes that US troops will be put at risk if the US renounces the Geneva Conventions in relation to the Taliban. Rumsfeld and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, allegedly agree with Powell’s argument. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] But Gonzales says that he agrees with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which has determined that the president had the authority to make this declaration on the premise that “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war” and “not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for GPW [Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war].” Gonzales thus states, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Newsweek, 5/24/2004] Gonzales also says that by declaring the war in Afghanistan exempt from the Geneva Conventions, the president would “[s]ubstantially [reduce] the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act [of 1996]” (see August 21, 1996). The president and other officials in the administration would then be protected from any future “prosecutors and independent counsels who may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Memo Actually Written by Cheney's Lawyer - Though the memo is released under Gonzales’s signature, many inside the White House do not believe the memo was written by him; it has an unorthodox format and a subtly mocking tone that does not go with Gonzales’s usual style. A White House lawyer with direct knowledge of the memo later says it was written by Cheney’s chief lawyer, David Addington. Deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan passed it to Gonzales, who signed it as “my judgment” and sent it to Bush. Addington’s memo quotes Bush’s own words: “the war against terrorism is a new kind of war.” [Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Powell 'Hits the Roof' over Memo - When Powell reads the memo (see January 26, 2002), he reportedly “hit[s] the roof” and immediately arranges for a meeting with the president (see January 25, 2002). [Newsweek, 5/24/2004]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions, Alberto R. Gonzales, Colin Powell, David S. Addington, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Richard B. Myers

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

US Secretary of State Colin Powell responds to Alberto Gonzales’ January 25 draft memo to the president (see January 25, 2002). He argues that it does not provide the president with a balanced view on the issue of whether or not to apply the Geneva Conventions to the conflict in Afghanistan. Powell lists several problems that could potentially result from exempting the conflict from the Conventions as Gonzales recommends. For example, he notes that it would “reverse over a century of US policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops, both in this specific conflict and in general.” The decision will furthermore have “a high cost in terms of negative international reaction.” It will “undermine public support among critical allies, making military cooperation more difficult to sustain,” and other states would “likely have legal problems with extradition or other forms of cooperation in law enforcement, including in bringing terrorists to justice.” But perhaps most ominously, Powell charges that the proposed decision “may provoke some individual foreign prosecutors to investigate and prosecute our officials and troops” and “make us more vulnerable to domestic and legal challenge.” The end of the memo consists of several rebuttals to points that Gonzales made in his memo. [US Department of State, 1/26/2004 pdf file; New York Times, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Alberto R. Gonzales, Colin Powell

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

In a reply to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (see January 25, 2002), the State Department’s Legal Director, William Howard Taft IV, tries again (see January 11, 2002) to put his view forward supporting obeying the Geneva Conventions. He writes: “The president should know that a decision that the Conventions do apply is consistent with the plain language of the Conventions and the unvaried practice of the United States in introducing its forces into conflict over fifty years.” [US Attorney General, 2/1/2002]

Entity Tags: William Howard Taft IV, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The White House declares that the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the conflict in Afghanistan, but will not grant prisoner-of-war status to captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Though Afghanistan was party to the 1949 treaty, Taliban fighters are not protected by the Conventions, the directive states, because the Taliban is not recognized by the US as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. Likewise, al-Qaeda fighters are not eligible to be protected under the treaty’s provisions because they do not represent a state that is party to the Conventions either.
Administration Will Treat Detainees Humanely 'Consistent' with Geneva - In the memo, President Bush writes that even though al-Qaeda detainees do not qualify as prisoners of war under Geneva, “as a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.” The presidential directive is apparently based on Alberto Gonzales’s January 25 memo (see January 25, 2002) and a memo from Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington (see January 25, 2002).
Bush Chooses Not to Suspend Geneva between US and Afghanistan - The directive also concludes that Bush, as commander in chief of the United States, has the authority to suspend the Geneva Conventions regarding the conflict in Afghanistan, should he feel necessary: Bush writes, “I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time.” Though not scheduled for declassification until 2012, the directive will be released by the White House in June 2004 to demonstrate that the president never authorized torture against detainees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. [George W. Bush, 2/7/2002 pdf file; CNN, 2/7/2002; Newsweek, 5/24/2004; Truthout (.org), 1/19/2005; Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 191]
Overriding State Department Objections - Bush apparently ignores or overrides objections from the State Department, including Secretary of State Colin Powell (see January 25, 2002) and the department’s chief legal counsel, William Howard Taft IV (see January 25, 2002). Both Powell and Taft strenuously objected to the new policy. [Savage, 2007, pp. 147]
Ignoring Promises of Humane Treatment - The reality will be somewhat different. Gonzales laid out the arguments for and against complying with Geneva in an earlier memo (see January 18-25, 2002), and argued that if the administration dispensed with Geneva, no one could later be charged with war crimes. Yet, according to Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, sometime after the Bush memo is issued, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld decide to ignore the portions promising humane treatment for prisoners. “In going back and looking at the deliberations,” Wilkerson later recalls, “it was clear to me that what the president had decided was one thing and what was implemented was quite another thing.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 190-191]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, William Howard Taft IV, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

President Barack Obama, in the same sweeping set of executive orders that mandates the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and orders the closure of the CIA’s secret prisons (see January 22, 2009), orders that the US no longer torture prisoners. And in a broad repudiation of Bush administration policies and legal arguments, Obama’s order nullifies every single legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch—including the Department of Justice—since September 11, 2001 (see Shortly After September 11, 2001, Late September 2001, October 23, 2001, Late October 2001, November 6-10, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 25, 2002, and April 2002 and After). “Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away,” the Washington Post reports. Obama orders that all interrogations conducted by the CIA and other US officials strictly follow the procedures outlined in the US Army Field Manual. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s nominee to become the director of national intelligence, says that the government may revise the Field Manual to include more coercive interrogation techniques; a commission will be appointed to determine if the Field Manual is adequate. Currently the Field Manual limits interrogators to 19 approved techniques, bans torture, and prohibits harsh questioning techniques in favor of using psychological approaches. “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” Obama tells a group of listeners at the State Department. “The message that we are sending the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly and we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals,” he adds. The US will now “observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.” [Agence France-Presse, 1/22/2009; Los Angeles Times, 1/23/2009; Washington Post, 1/23/2009] Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that he is certain Obama will not secretly authorize torture. Malinowski says that while Obama might oversee some changes in the Field Manual, he says that Obama will not renege on his promise that detainees would not be tortured or treated inhumanely. [Financial Times, 1/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, US Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency, Barack Obama, Tom Malinowski, Dennis C. Blair

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tells an NPR reporter that he never allowed the Justice Department (DOJ) to become politicized, and that he believes the historical judgment of his tenure in the department will be favorable. He acknowledges making some errors, including failing to properly oversee the DOJ’s push to fire nine US attorneys in 2008, a process many believe was orchestrated by the White House with the involvement of Gonzales and then-White House political guru Karl Rove.
Failure to Engage - “No question, I should have been more engaged in that process,” he says, but adds that he is being held accountable for decisions made by his subordinates. “I deeply regret some of the decisions made by my staff,” he says, referring to his former deputy Paul McNulty, who resigned over the controversy after telling a Senate committee that the attorney firings were performance-related and not politically motivated. Gonzales says his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was primarily responsible for the US attorney review process and for working with McNulty. “If Paul McNulty makes a recommendation to me—if a recommendation includes his views—I would feel quite comfortable that those would be good recommendations coming to me” about the qualifications of the US attorneys under question, Gonzales says. He adds that he has “seen no evidence” that Rove or anyone at the White House tried to use the US attorneys to politicize the work at the DOJ. A review by the DOJ’s Inspector General found that the firing policy was fundamentally flawed, and that Gonzales was disengaged and had failed to properly supervise the review process.
Claims He Was Unfairly Targeted by 'Mean-Spirited' Washington Insiders - Gonzales says he has been unfairly held responsible for many controversial Bush administration policies, including its refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, January 18-25, 2002, January 25, 2002, August 1, 2002, November 11, 2004, and January 17, 2007) and its illegal eavesdropping on US citizens (see Early 2004, March 9, 2004, December 19, 2005, Early 2006, and February 15, 2006), because of his close personal relationship with former President Bush. Washington, he says, is a “difficult town, a mean-spirited town.” He continues: “Sometimes people identify someone to target. That’s what happened to me. I’m not whining. It comes with the job.”
Visiting Ashcroft at the Hospital - In 2004, Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and White House chief of staff Andrew Card raced to the bedside of hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to persuade, or perhaps coerce, Ashcroft to sign off on a secret government surveillance program (see March 10-12, 2004). The intervention was blocked by Deputy Attorney General James Comey (see March 12-Mid-2004). Gonzales says he has no regrets about the incident: “Neither Andy nor I would have gone there to take advantage of somebody who was sick. We were sent there on behalf of the president of the United States.” As for threats by Justice Department officials to resign en masse over the hospital visit (see Late March, 2004), Gonzales merely says, “Lawyers often disagree about important legal issues.”
Warning about Plain Speaking - Gonzales says Obama’s attorney general nominee, Eric Holder, should refrain from making such statements as Holder made last week when he testified that waterboarding is torture. “One needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that,” Gonzales says, adding that such a statement might affect the “morale and dedication” of intelligence officials and lawyers who are attempting to make cases against terrorism suspects. [National Public Radio, 1/26/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Eric Holder, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, Geneva Conventions, George W. Bush, James B. Comey Jr., Karl C. Rove, Paul J. McNulty, D. Kyle Sampson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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