(photo credit: Courtesy )
All countries have the right to protect their citizens and take lawful actions to ensure their national security, US Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post approved for publication on Wednesday.
However, Gonzales, in the country for two days of high-level talks as part of a trip that will also take him to Egypt, was reticent about commenting directly on Israel's war on terrorism and the situation in the south.
The soft-spoken Gonzales, on his first visit to Israel, is more than just the US attorney-general, the most powerful law enforcement position in America. He is also considered one of US President George W. Bush's closest confidants, and he has turned into the lightning rod for criticism from those who think Washington has trampled human rights at the prison in its offshore naval base at Guantanamo Bay, in alleged CIA prisons in Eastern Europe or in the US itself in the name of fighting terrorism.
Gonzales repeatedly refused to comment on questions in which he was asked about how Israel should handle the capture and abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit to Gaza. All he would say was that "we are focusing on getting this resolved as quickly as possible without any further violence. We want the soldier returned to his family."
Gonzales insisted that all of the measures taken by the US in its battle against al-Qaida were within the limits of US law, including the open-ended incarceration of hundreds of suspected al-Qaida operatives or supporters being held without trial or judicial review at Guantanamo Bay.
"We don't intend to keep Guantanamo in perpetuity, although our Supreme Court has said that the US can detain enemy combatants without charges for the duration of the hostilities," said Gonzales.
"We know we are going to be engaged in a long conflict with Al-Qaida and we have to be able to use all the tools available to deal with terrorism. One of them is to detain illegal combatants for [a] period of time so they don't come back and fight against American soldiers."
He said the government was waiting for the Supreme Court decision challenging its intention to try some of the detainees by military commissions on charges of terrorism. The commissions have come under severe criticism from human rights organizations who charge that they will not provide fair hearings.
"The president dictated that the military commissions should be fair," Gonzales said when asked whether the hearings would be transparent. "There is a lot of process, a lot of procedures that are afforded in a military commission. The Department of Defense has spent a lot of time promulgating regulations that are going to govern the military commission and will carefully watch the evolution of the law in the courts [and] call for changes in the rules and regulations of military commissions. All of this is to ensure that these rules and regulations meet the president's directive."
According to human rights groups, international humanitarian law does not recognize the status of "enemy combatants" and there is no domestic law in the US - as there is in Israel - establishing such a status. But Gonzales said that the designation had been recognized by the US Supreme Court.
"We had a decision in the Supreme Court in 2004 which involved an American citizen whom the president determined was an enemy combatant. And in that case, the Supreme Court said 'yes,' the president has the authority to detain an enemy combatant. It recognized that status."
There have also been allegations that the US has condoned torture or unduly harsh treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and that, in doing so, it was violating its obligations as a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment.
Gonzales denied the charge. He said that in signing the treaty the US had included its own definition of what these prohibited actions constituted and was complying with this definition. "Some may argue that we are not following legal obligations, but that's because they're applying their own legal obligations to us," said Gonzales.