10 June 2004
White House Counsel Says "Terrorists Are Different"
Commentary by Alberto R. Gonzales
(This column by Alberto R. Gonzales, who is White House counsel
to President Bush, was published in the USA Today June 10 and is
in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)
Terrorists Are Different
By Alberto R. Gonzales
In all aspects of our nation's war on terror, including the conflict
in Iraq, it is the policy of the United States to comply with governing
laws and treaty obligations.
The United States has recognized that the Geneva Conventions apply
to the war to liberate Iraq. As President Bush's then-press secretary,
Ari Fleischer, plainly stated early in the war, there was "no question" that
our armed forces would treat captured Iraqi armed forces "in accordance
with the Geneva Convention."
The president has been and remains firmly committed to our military's
observance in Iraq of the Geneva Conventions and our other international
The conflict with al-Qaeda and the Taliban presents a situation
very different from the conflict in Iraq. The Third Geneva Convention
confers the protected status of "prisoner of war" on captured combatants
from armed forces that fight on behalf of states that are parties
to the convention and meet the convention's standards. It does
not confer POW status on terrorists, such as al-Qaeda, who fight
on behalf of no state and seek to kill innocent civilians.
Although Afghanistan is a party to the convention, the president
determined that the Taliban fighters were not entitled to POW status
under the convention. It provides that combatants must, among other
things, distinguish themselves from civilians, which the Taliban
clearly did not.
While determining that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were not entitled
to treatment as POWs, the president, nevertheless, reaffirmed that
our armed forces were to treat al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, humanely and, to the extent appropriate and
consistent with military necessity, in keeping with the principles
of the Third Geneva Convention.
In the war on terror, we confront an enemy that seeks to inflict
large-scale civilian casualties by surprise attack. Gathering intelligence
about the plans of these mass murderers is critical to defending
America. To confer the special privileges of POW status upon terrorists
would reward those who, by hiding among civilian populations, undermine
the convention's basic objective of protecting innocent citizens,
and it would only encourage terrorists to continue to violate the
laws of war.
Ultimate success in the war on terror will require sustained,
patient and effective military, intelligence, diplomatic and law-enforcement
operations. We must and shall, consistent with applicable U.S.
law, collect intelligence that allows us to protect American citizens
from further terrorist attacks.
In pursuing the war on terror here and abroad, we are committed
to complying with our legal obligations while acting to protect
America from its enemies.
(Alberto R. Gonzales is White House counsel to President Bush.)