WASHINGTON—President Bush said Thursday that he ordered American troops to follow U.S. laws and international treaties banning torture, but he sidestepped a question about whether torture was ever justified.
Bush also said he couldn't remember whether he'd seen an advisory memo by a top Justice Department official that said torture was sometimes legally permissible in wartime, despite treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, which consider torture or inhuman treatment to be war crimes.
"The authorization I issued ... was that anything we did would conform to U.S. law and would conform to international treaty obligations," Bush told reporters at the conclusion of the G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Ga.
Asked whether torture was ever justified, Bush was vague.
"The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you," Bush replied. "We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at those laws, and that might provide comfort for you."
Bush's remarks came as the investigation into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners escalated. Apparently recognizing that the scandal goes beyond six rogue military police officers and might involve senior officials, the head of U.S. coalition forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, asked to be recused from the probe so that he could be questioned in connection to it.
The effect of Sanchez's decision means that Maj. Gen. George Fay would have to be replaced with someone of a higher rank. Because of military protocol and rules, Fay, a two-star general, is unable to interview officers of higher rank, such as Sanchez.
Sanchez visited Abu Ghraib, the Iraq prison where the most notorious abuses occurred, several times last fall, but said he didn't witness any abuses.
An Oct. 12 memo by Sanchez gave control of the prison to military intelligence officers and instructed them to work closely with military police units to manipulate the detainees' psychological and physical conditions. The memo contradicts Sanchez's Senate testimony from last month, in which he said military police had control of the facility and its detainees.
Investigators are also interested in finding out whether Sanchez signed off on special interrogation procedures that might have given the intelligence officers and the military police the license to abuse, isolate and humiliate Iraqi detainees.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said he expected that a four-star general would be appointed to head the investigation and said it showed the Pentagon was taking the probe seriously.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the move would likely delay the inquiry.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were preparing to bear down on Attorney General John Ashcroft, who earlier in the week refused lawmakers' requests for Justice Department memos on torture.
Although the contents of the memo have been leaked to various news organizations, Ashcroft refused to release them to the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying the Justice Department's legal advice for the president and the executive branch must remain confidential.
The Democrats' likely first step would be to try to get the Judiciary Committee to formally request the memos. Committee Democrats also haven't ruled out issuing subpoenas or calling for a special counsel to investigate. But because they're in the minority they need at least one Republican to join them. It was unclear Thursday if any would.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, stood solidly behind the administration, saying the release of the memos would "cause the deaths of our young people ... by publicizing something that shouldn't be publicized."
"If I were the Democrats I would think twice before they tried to embarrass Ashcroft," Hatch said.
But Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who also sits on the committee, said Congress has the right to ask what the administration believes is permissible in interrogations.
"Congress has the right to explore and ask those questions from the executive branch," DeWine said. "Whether it gets that information or not from internal memos is another question."
Some Democrats believe they should push the issue even if they lose. A Republican refusal to go along with disclosure could be portrayed as an attempt to protect the Bush administration from an inquiry into whether it condoned the use of coercive measures or torture on detainees.
"This issue is not going to drop," said one senior Democratic Senate staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The only question is the strategy and that's something that's being worked out."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.