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Bush advisers debate detainees status

More than 150 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
More than 150 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. State Department has recommended that President Bush consider applying the protections of the Geneva Conventions to al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in U.S. custody, a senior administration official told CNN on Saturday.

The official said, however, that published reports suggesting Secretary of State Colin Powell advocated reclassifying the detainees as prisoners of war were "incorrect."

"The president's advisers all agree that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are not prisoners of war," the official said. "Nobody thinks they are entitled to prisoner of war status."

The Bush administration now classifies the detainees as "unlawful combatants," a designation that exempts them from requirements under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Another senior administration official also told CNN that Powell was not advocating that the detainees be declared prisoners of war. The official said Powell believed that in the end most would still be deemed unlawful combatants.

The official said, however, Powell did not believe that the United States should automatically declare all of them unlawful combatants.

The official said because most of the detainees were considered members of a criminal organization, not a recognized army, they would not be entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

"Just because they are unlawful combatants doesn't mean they'll merit POW status," the official said.

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U.S. officials said the detainees being held in Afghanistan and at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were being treated "humanely," consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.

They were not being provided the same protections prisoners of war would receive, however, particularly the right to refuse cooperation with interrogators.

Reports that Powell supported a change in the status of the prisoners were based on a draft memo on the subject from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, quoted by The Washington Times and The New York Times.

The newspapers reported that the memo said Powell argued al Qaeda and Taliban members could be declared unlawful combatants "only on a case-by-case basis following individual hearings before a military board."

A senior administration official said the final version of the memo being sent to the president and his national security team "reflects the consensus [of] opinion that the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are not prisoners of war."

There appears to be two schools of thought within the administration -- one that the Geneva Conventions should not apply at all, and another that they might apply but that current detainees would still not qualify for protection.

A senior administration official said that even if the administration were to declare the Geneva Conventions might apply, the way the detainees were being treated would not change.

Such a declaration could stem from international criticism of the administration's detention policies.

The United States has been criticized by some human rights organizations for its handling of the detainees, although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said they are being treated humanely.

British officials who visited three of their citizens last week at Guantanamo Bay agreed the prisoners were not being mistreated.

Rumsfeld was scheduled to visit the naval base Sunday.

Amnesty International issued a statement Saturday saying it agreed with Powell's reported stance. "We hope that his advice prevails within the administration," the statement said.

The military began transferring prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay this month. So far, 158 have arrived. Interrogation of them began Wednesday, without lawyers present.

-- CNN's Kelly Wallace and Andrea Koppel contributed to this story.




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