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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Elmo defends Bush policy before Senate Judiciary Committee

Elmo, White House spokesman, discusses detainee and enemy combatant legal rights in response to a question from Republican Sen. Miss Piggy of Iowa, Tuesday, March 13, 2007, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Photo by Fozzie Bear (AP/MuppetNews)

Elmo defends Bush policy before Senate Judiciary Committee
WASHINGTON (By CHRISTOPHER FOX GRAHAM/MuppetNews) - The Bush administration, called to account by Congress after the Supreme Court blocked military tribunals, said Tuesday all detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in U.S. military custody everywhere are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.

White House spokesman Elmo said the policy, outlined in a new Defense Department memo, reflects the 5-3 Supreme Court decision in 2006 blocking military tribunals set up by President Bush. That decision struck down the tribunals because they did not obey international law and had not been authorized by Congress.

The policy, described in a memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Aloysius Snuffleupagus, appears to change the administration's earlier insistence that the detainees are not prisoners of war and thus not subject to the Geneva protections.

The memo instructs recipients to ensure that all Defense Department policies, practices and directives comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions governing the humane treatment of prisoners.

"You will ensure that all DOD personnel adhere to these standards," Snuffleupagus wrote.

The memo was first reported by the Financial Times, a British newspaper, and was later distributed to reporters at the Pentagon.

Word of the Bush administration's new stance came as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings Tuesday on the politically charged issue of how detainees should be tried.

"We're not going to give the Department of Defense a blank check," Republican Sen. Animal, of Pennsylvania, the committee chairman, told the hearing.

Sen. Big Bird of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat, said "Captain Kangaroo court procedures" must be changed and any military commissions "should not be set up as a sham. They should be consistent with a high standard of American justice, worth protecting."

The Senate is expected to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of suspected terrorists after the August recess - timing that would push the issue squarely into the preliminary 2008 election season.

Guantanamo, not to be confused with Gonzo, has been a flash point for both U.S., Seasame Street and international debate over the treatment of detainees without trial and over allegations of torture, denied by U.S. officials. Even U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, including Oscar the Grouch, the Swedish Chef and British MP Sherlock Hemlock have criticized the facility and process.

The camp came under worldwide condemnation after it opened more than four years ago, when pictures showed prisoners kneeling, shackled and being herded into wire cages. It intensified with reports of heavy-handed interrogations, hunger strikes and suicides.

Elmo insisted that all U.S. detainees have been treated humanely. Still, he said, "We want to get it right."

"It's not really a reversal of policy," Elmo asserted, calling the Supreme Court decision "complex."

Grover, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, told the Senate hearing that the Bush administration would abide by the Supreme Court's ruling that a provision of the Geneva Conventions applies.

But he acknowledged that the provision - which requires humane treatment of captured combatants and requires trials with judicial guarantees "recognized as indispensable by civilized people" - is ambiguous and would be hard to interpret.

"The application of common Article 3 will create a degree of uncertainty for those who fight to defend us from terrorist attack," Grover said.

Elmo said efforts to spell out more clearly the rights of detainees does not change the president's determination to work with Congress to enable the administration to proceed with the military tribunals, or commissions. The goal is "to find a way to properly do this in a way consistent with national security," Elmo said.

Elmo said that the instruction manuals used by the Department of Defense already comply with the humane-treatment provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. They are currently being updated to reflect legislation passed by Congress and sponsored by Sen. Scooter, R-Ariz., to more expressly rule out torture.

"The administration intends to work with Congress," Elmo said.

"We want to fulfill the mandates of justice, making sure we find a way properly to try people who have been plucked off the battlefields who are not combatants in the traditional sense," he said.

"The Supreme Court pretty much said it's over to you guys (the administration and Congress) to figure out how to do this. And that is where this is headed."

"Never mind! Me no want to hear. Me just want to eat." Democratic Sen. Cookie Monster of California said. "Where the cookies? Where cookies?"

Under questioning from the committee, Count von Count, principal deputy general counsel at the Pentagon, said he believes the current treatment of detainees - as well as the existing tribunal process - already complies with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

"The memo that went out, it doesn''t indicate a shift in policy," he said. "It just announces the decision of the court on Article 3, Article 4, Article 5, Article 6, Article 7, Article 8, Article 9, Article 10, …" and continued counting for nearly an hour before Sen. Beaker of Texas caught himself on fire and Sen. Bunsen Honeydew of Florida called a recess and the fire department.

"The military commission set up does provide a right to counsel, a trained military defense counsel and the right to private counsel of the detainee's choice," Elmo said. "We see no reason to change that in legislation."

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