A department memo from Feb. 2, 2002, surfaced Thursday as President Bush said he ordered U.S. officials to follow the law while interrogating suspected terrorists.
Mr. Bush sidestepped an opportunity to denounce the use of torture.
"What I've authorized is that we stay within U.S. law," Mr. Bush told reporters at the close of thein Georgia.
Asked whether torture is ever justified, Mr. Bush replied, "Look, I'm going to say it one more time. … The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you."
In a related development, The Washington Post reports intelligence officers ordered the use of dogs to frighten detainees at Abu Ghraib. Two dog handlers even had a contest to see who could make more prisoners urinate out of fear, according to testimony.
The State Department memo warned that failing to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees from the war in Afghanistan — whether al Qaeda or Taliban — would put U.S. troops at risk.
"A decision that the conventions do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan in which our armed forces are engaged deprives our troops there of any claim to the protection of the convention in the event they are captured," State Department legal adviser William H. Taft IV wrote in the 2002 memo to presidential counsel.
Furthermore, refusing Geneva standards to detainees "weakens protections afforded by the conventions to our troops in future conflicts," Taft wrote. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo.
The State Department memo followedadvising the president he could suspend international treaties prohibiting torture.
The Justice Department also told the White House that U.S. laws against torture do not apply to the fight against terrorism. The department memos say torture "may be justified" against al Qaeda detainees in U.S. custody abroad and laws and treaties barring torture could be trumped by the president's supreme authority to act as necessary in wartime.
Democrats say that by suggesting that Mr. Bush could legally authorize torture, the memos would have created the legal foundation for Iraqi prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
The investigation into that abuse has turned on whether official policy of higher-ranking officials approved or encouraged the abuse. Reports of harsh methods against detainees now cover prisons in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay facility, as well as those in Iraq.
According to reports published Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in late 2002including "fear of dogs" and "stress positions." Lawyers for Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers worried that some interrogation tactics placed Myers in legal jeopardy.
Mr. Bush said Thursday he does not recall seeing any of the Justice Department advice.
In its memo, the State Department also advised that following Geneva standards "demonstrates that the United States bases its conduct not just on its policy preferences, but on its international legal obligations."
Five days after the State Department memo was written, Mr. Bush decided the Geneva Conventions apply to Taliban prisoners but not to captured al Qaeda terrorists.
The Bush administration has said that even though it does not believe the Geneva Conventions apply to prisoners in the war on terror, it has complied with the treaty's guidelines.
Quoting sworn statements by dog handlers at Abu Ghraib, The Post reports that the highest ranking military intelligence officers at the prison approved the plan to use unmuzzled dogs to scare prisoners. One claimed that a two-star or major general suggested the canines' use.
At least one detainee testified that he had been bitten by one of the Army dogs.
Accounts of an ongoing Army investigation of Iraq's prisons indicate that many detainees, including some in the high-security section of Abu Ghraib where the abuse took place, were held on flimsy evidence.
The handlers' claims raise questions about the contention by Mr. Bush and others that responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib is confined to a small group of soldiers. Only seven low-ranking GIs have been charged with crimes.