The Bush administration for the first time has acknowledged that all detainees held by the U.S. military are subject to the protections under the Geneva Conventions. The Pentagon detailed the policy in a memo made public on the day the Senate opened hearings on how such detainees should be tried.
The memo, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, says detainees held in U.S. military custody worldwide are covered by Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, which ensures their humane treatment.
The memo is dated July 7, just more than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the military tribunal system set up by President Bush to try foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because, among other reasons, it had not been authorized by Congress.
England notes in the memo that the high court ruled the military tribunals are not consistent with Common Article Three.
But he adds that it is his understanding that aside from the military commission procedures, Defense Department policies and directives are in compliance with Article Three. He recalled President Bush's prior declaration that the U.S. Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely.
Similar comments were made by Daniel Dell'Orto, the Pentagon's principal deputy general counsel, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
"We believe the treatment of all detainees are receiving under DOD [Department of Defense] control, under DOD custody, are being treated in a manner that meets the common Article Three standard, or exceeds it," Dell'Orto says.
The Judiciary Committee is considering legislation in response to the Supreme Court ruling, specifically how to create a legal system for detainees held in U.S. military custody.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is chairman of the committee:
"We are not going to leave it to the Department of Defense or give the Department of Defense a blank check. We are going to establish the standards and the policy," senator Specter says.
The acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Steve Bradbury, urged the committee to keep some Defense Department policies intact.
"The military commissions that the Secretary of Defense set up do provide a right to counsel, a right in fact to both a government counsel provided by the military, a trained government defense counsel and a right to private counsel of the detainee's choice, subject to certain conditions, and we would see no reason to change that in any legislation," Bradbury says.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, says the chamber is not expected to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of detainees until after the August recess.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration had argued that detainees held in the war on terror are not subject to all the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
The United States has come under international criticism over its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere - including allegations of torture, denied by U.S. officials, and reports of forced interrogations.