WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin Powell, breaking with other Cabinet members, has asked President Bush to reverse himself and declare that captives being held in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are entitled to protection by the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, administration officials said on Saturday.
In an unusual challenge to a presidential decision, Powell and his lawyers at the State Department urged Bush to affirm that the international law of war governs the United States' treatment of all captives of the Taliban military and al-Qaida terrorist network. They should be considered prisoners of war, he argued, until each is brought before a military board for an individual hearing.
From Powell's point of view, the change in policy would help ease relations with allied governments and partners in the anti-terrorism coalition, including some states whose citizens are being held at Guantanamo.
But the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, has advised that "the arguments for reconsideration and reversal are unpersuasive," according to a memorandum he wrote on Friday describing the split. The office of general counsel at the Justice Department also disputes the State Department's view, Gonzales said. Gonzales' memorandum was first reported on Saturday by The Washington Times.
White House and State Department officials confirmed the dispute.
Reflecting the urgency of the matter, the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, asked members of Bush's war Cabinet to submit their views to her Saturday morning for discussion later on Saturday, according to her cover letter to Gonzales' memorandum, also quoted in The Washington Times. The administration hopes to resolve the matter by Monday, Rice's letter said.
Bush was heading back to Washington on Saturday, breaking away from a planned weekend at Camp David.
The United States has faced international criticism over its handling of the prisoners, although the Bush administration has insisted that they are being treated fairly. A congressional delegation visited the camp on Friday, and its members said the treatment of prisoners was humane. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has vigorously defended the administration's approach, is to take a group of reporters, including several from foreign news organizations, to see the camp at Guantanamo on Sunday.
A senior State Department official said that Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has no fundamental objection to the treatment of the prisoners. But as the Cabinet officer responsible for U.S. compliance with international treaties, Powell wants a formal process to be followed in determining their status, as the Geneva Convention requires.
In fact, Powell was said to believe that in the end, most would not qualify as POWs.