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Homeland Security

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.)

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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 agreements.

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.)

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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