Washington The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal shifted Sunday to the question of whether the Bush administration set up a legal foundation that opened the door for the mistreatment.
Within months of the Sept. 11 attacks, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales reportedly wrote President Bush a memo about the terrorism fight and prisoners' rights under the Geneva Conventions.
"In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions," Gonzales wrote, according to the report in Newsweek magazine. Secretary of State Colin Powell "hit the roof" when he read the memo, according to the account.
Asked about the Gonzales memo, the White House said, "It is the policy of the United States to comply with all of our laws and our treaty obligations."
The roots of the scandal lay in a decision, approved last year by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a classified operation for aggressive interrogations to Iraqi prisoners, a program that had been focused on the hunt for al-Qaida, The New Yorker magazine reported.
The Pentagon said that story was "filled with error and anonymous conjecture" and called it "outlandish, conspiratorial."
Congressional critics suggested the administration may have unwisely imported to Iraq techniques from the war on al-Qaida.
"There is a sort of morphing of the rules of treatment," said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. "We can treat al-Qaida this way, and we can't treat prisoners captured this way, but where do insurgents fit? This is a dangerous slope."
In early 2002, the White House announced that Taliban and al-Qaida detainees would not be afforded prisoner-of-war status, but that the United States would apply the Geneva Conventions to the war in Afghanistan.
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the reports that Rumsfeld approved a secret program on interrogation for use in Iraq raise "this issue to a whole new level."