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Profile: Jennifer Hoelzer

Jennifer Hoelzer was a participant or observer in the following events:

In recent letters to Congress, the Justice Department has suggested that the Geneva Conventions’ ban on “outrages against personal dignity” does not automatically apply to terrorism suspects in the custody of US intelligence agencies (see August 8, 2007 and March 6, 2008). The letters are just now being made public, with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) making them available to the Washington Post. Last year, Wyden asked the Justice Department to provide an explanation for President Bush’s 2007 executive order authorizing the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh interrogation techniques” on detainees (see July 20, 2007) even as Bush claimed US interrogators would always observe Geneva restrictions. The department responded with several letters that reasserted the Bush administration’s contentions that it is not bound by domestic law or international treaties in deciding how the Geneva Conventions apply to the interrogation of terror suspects. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; Voice of America, 4/27/2008]
'Humane Treatment' Subject to Interpretation, Circumstances - The Justice Department acknowledges that the US is bound by Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which requires that a signatory nation treat its detainees humanely; however, the letters say that the definition of “humane treatment” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and can depend on the detainee’s identity and the importance of the information he possesses. In a letter written to a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the principal deputy assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski, wrote, “Some prohibitions… such as the prohibition on ‘outrages against personal dignity,’ do invite the consideration of the circumstances surrounding the action.” The government can weigh “the identity and information possessed by a detainee” in deciding whether to use harsh and potentially inhumane techniques, according to Benczkowski. A suspect with information about a future attack, for example, could and possibly would be subjected to extreme treatment, he says, and notes that a violation of the Geneva Conventions would only occur if the interrogator’s conduct “shocks the conscience” because it is out of proportion to “the government interest involved.” He continued, “The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.” Furthermore, any action defined as an “outrage upon personal dignity” must be deliberate and involve an “intent to humiliate and degrade.”
Government Arguments 'Appalling,' Says Senator - A spokeswoman for Wyden, Jennifer Hoelzer, says that the administration’s contention that the Geneva Conventions can be selectively applied is “stunning.” Hoelzer says: “The Geneva Convention in most cases is the only shield that Americans have when they are captured overseas. And for the president to say that it is acceptable to interpret Geneva on a sliding scale means that he thinks that it is acceptable for other countries to do the same. Senator Wyden—and I believe any other reasonable individual—finds that argument appalling.” Law professor Scott Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University, agrees with Wyden’s assessments. He notes, “What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense.” An anonymous Justice Department official disagrees. “I certainly don’t want to suggest that if there’s a good purpose you can head off and humiliate and degrade someone. The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous.” However, he adds, “there are certainly things that can be insulting that would not raise to the level of an outrage on personal dignity.” Wyden states that if the US is subjective in deciding what is and isn’t compliant under Geneva, then other countries will do the same to US prisoners in their custody. “The cumulative effect in my interpretation is to put American troops at risk,” he says. [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008] He adds that the letters help make the case for a law that explicitly puts the CIA interrogations under the same restrictions as the military, or another set of clear standards. [Wall Street Journal, 4/27/2008]
'Full Compliance' - The CIA refuses to comment on Benczkowski’s memo, but spokesman Mark Mansfield says the CIA’s detainee program “has been and continues to be in full compliance with the laws of our country.” He adds, “The program has disrupted terrorist plots and has saved lives.” [Washington Post, 4/27/2008; New York Times, 4/27/2008]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Mark Mansfield, Brian A. Benczkowski, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Ron Wyden, Senate Intelligence Committee, Jennifer Hoelzer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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