WASHINGTON -- A brief memo circulated among military brass marked the end of the Bush administration's insistence that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to captives in the war on terrorism.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon disclosed the directive ordering a thorough review to make sure all policies and practices on the military detention of suspected terrorists conform with basic human rights protections of Article 3 of the Geneva accords.
Officials had little if any choice, after the Supreme Court asserted that the struggle against al-Qaida was not outside the realm of the conventions.
The accords, previously dismissed by the administration as "quaint" in part, prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment," and require "judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."
The administration said it has treated terrorist suspects humanely without giving them Geneva status. Thomas Wilner, a lawyer representing detainees at Guantanamo, disputed that assertion, saying hardball interrogation tactics at the camp have included chaining prisoners to floors in uncomfortable positions in cold rooms.
"We will need to wait and see whether they are going to back up their promises with actions," Wilner said. "Geneva is the standardized treatment of prisoners by the civilized world."
Disclosure of the review came as senators took up the prickly question of how alleged terrorists should be treated and tried and as the administration sought legislation to restore the military tribunals struck down by the court late last month.
The administration had reasoned that detainees held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere were not from a recognized nation, were not captured in uniform and did not observe traditional rules of war.
Instead, the people apprehended in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other zones in the war on terrorism have been classified as "unlawful combatants."
The administration sought remedies on both fronts Tuesday, revisiting its prisoner guarantees and appealing to senators to revive the tribunals with legislation. Some critics have suggested the detainees should be tried by military courts-martial instead, an idea opposed by President Bush.
The Senate is unlikely to act until the fall, setting up a pitched debate over the issue at the height of the campaign for control of Congress.
The memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England to all branches of the armed forces gave recipients three weeks to report back on compliance with Article 3.
The practical effect on interrogation techniques, detention conditions and trial procedures was unclear.
Officials at the White House and Pentagon did not say how, if at all, the treatment of terror detainees would be different under the Geneva Conventions. The government has insisted that its treatment of these captives has been in compliance with the Geneva treaties all along, even though it has refused to apply them as a matter of law.
On the other hand, prisoner abuses have unfolded in Iraq even with the Geneva protections in force in that war.
Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, told a Senate hearing that Article 3 is ambiguous and its use "will create a degree of uncertainty for those who fight to defend us from terrorist attack."
Even so, he said, the Supreme Court imposed a standard "that we must now interpret and implement."
French Justice Minister Pascal Clement, after meeting Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to talk about the Guantanamo camp and other issues, noted a change in rhetoric. He said Gonzales referred to the detainees as prisoners of war, not enemy combatants.
Administration officials testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee asked for legislation to codify tribunal procedures so they can pass constitutional muster and still give the U.S. flexibility to deal with an unconventional foe.
"We would like to see Congress act quickly to establish a solid statutory basis for the military commission process, so that trials of captured al-Qaida terrorists can move forward again," Bradbury said. "The United States may continue to detain the terrorists we have captured. But as of right now, we cannot effectively punish those who have committed war crimes. That is unacceptable."
Senators were told that some 1,000 suspected terrorists are in U.S. detention around the world, including about 450 at Guantanamo.
Administration officials cautioned against adopting a version of the military court-martial to try suspected terrorists, saying that system is in some ways more open and generous to defendants than even the civilian code. Interrogations could be deterred, for example, if terrorists were granted the court-martial right to avoid speaking until represented by counsel.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee chairman, opened the hearing by saying, "We're not going to give the Department of Defense a blank check."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat, said "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."
Guantanamo has been a flashpoint for both U.S. and international debate over the treatment of detainees without trial and over allegations of torture, denied by U.S. officials. Even U.S. allies 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.
White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted that all U.S. detainees have been treated humanely. Still, he said, "we want to get it right."
Jumana Musa, advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, said the effect of the new policy on prisoner treatment is unclear, because questionable tactics have been employed despite existing requirements for humane treatment.
"This could change nothing except for the fact that it is an admission for the first time that any law applies to al-Qaida detainees," she said. "The issue here is really one of interpretation -- and we've seen how they've interpreted torture."
The Financial Times reported the new memo before its release.
Associated Press writers Gina Holland, Pete Yost and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this story.