2002 January 25

White House Counsel To Bush: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply


In a pivotal memo on war on terror policy, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales advised the administration of President George W. Bush that the 1949 Geneva Conventions (December 8, 1949)  did not apply to the treatment of terrorist detainees. The memo was drafted by David Addington, chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom were chief architects of administration policy in the War on Terror.

The argument that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to U.S. policies was one of several lawless and inhumane actions by the administration of President George W. Bush in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. This particular policy led to the torture of terrorist detainees, a policy that was almost universally condemned by international law experts and human rights activists. The Bush administration also argued repeatedly that neither Congress nor the federal courts had any jurisdictions over presidential decisions that were made by the president when he acted as commander in chief. Bush also flouted the law by ordering secret and illegal spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). See the crucial and infamous “Torture Memo” of August 1, 2002, for the fullest statement of the Bush administration’s legal reasoning.

The Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s argument regarding the unreviewable power of the president when acting as Commander in Chief. See the important cases: Rasul v. Bush, June 28, 2004; Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, June 28, 2004; Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, June 29, 2006; and Boumediene v. Bush, June 12, 2008.


Gonzales: “The Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice has opined that, as a matter of international and domestic law, [the Third Geneva Convention, regarding prisoners of war] does not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda.”

Learn more: Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture (2006)

Read other key documents: Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel, eds, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (2005)

Learn more: Howard Ball, Bush, The Detainees, & the Constitution: The Battle Over Presidential Power in the War on Terror (2007)

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