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US Detainee Debate Complicated by Elusive Definition of Torture

The Bush administration has decided to go along with a bill pending in Congress that would bar cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of any detainee held anywhere in U.S. custody. The bill, sponsored by Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, is in response to reports of mistreatment of detainees in U.S. custody as part of the war against terrorism. Administration officials have repeatedly said that the United States does not engage in or condone torture. The issue is complicated by the fact there is no clear, internationally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes torture.

After Senator McCain and the White House reached agreement on Mr. McCain's proposal, President Bush said the amendment reassures the world that the United States does not engage in torture.

"We've been happy to work with him to achieve a common objective to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture whether it be here at home or abroad," said Mr. Bush.

But defining just what constitutes torture is elusive. Everyone agrees that harsh physical abuse, such as beating or tearing out fingernails, is torture. But there is a wide range of other techniques available that fall into what former Army interrogator Mike Ritz calls a "grey area."

"Until there's a true definition of torture, then I think it does become impossible to say that a person doesn't do it. Because what's my torture is not your torture, and it's very different for each person," said Mr. Ritz. "I don't know how you come to a general consensus over that. The Geneva Conventions seem to be just vague enough to where you can get away with most anything."

The McCain Amendment bars what it calls "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment," but does not lay out what acts by a guard or interrogator meet that standard. Even the International Convention Against Torture is vague, calling torture any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.

Last year Britain's Channel 4 television hired Mr. Ritz and some of his fellow ex-intelligence interrogators for an experiment in what might constitute torture.

Seven consenting volunteers, including three British Muslims, were taken by Mr. Ritz's men to an East London warehouse for a mock detention and interrogation. For 48 hours, they were slapped, deprived of sleep, hooded, shackled, subjected to piercing noise and extremes in temperature, and put into positions of physical stress, such as leaning at arm's length against a wall for a prolonged period. All are practices that are reported to have either been used or approved by U.S. officials for use in questioning terror suspects.

One of the volunteers was Israr Iqbal, a 31-year-old British Muslim who wanted to see for himself what the detainees might be going through. Mr. Iqbal, who has been in Britain since he was three years old, says that although the treatment was toned down, he still found the experience both frightening and sobering.

But was what Mr. Iqbal went through torture? He thinks at least some of it was, and came up with his own definition of the term. "To be in an unnatural state for a prolonged period of time. That's how I would feel it," he said. "For example, sleep. If you don't get your normal amount of sleep, and [are] continually woken up and not given a consistent two or three hours of sleep, in the long run that becomes torture because you're in an unnatural state. It's not your normal way of being. So really for me, even that is a torture."

Did he feel what he experienced rose to the level of torture? "Yes. Yes, I would say so," says Mr. Iqbal.

Chris Guelff, an American volunteer who was studying at Oxford University at the time, describes in graphic detail the so-called white noise to which he was subjected in the experiment. Hooded and shackled, interrogators placed headphones on his head. What Mr. Guelff heard was not static, as is often assumed.

"The only way I can describe it is it sounds like a woman being attacked with a knife being played backwards," described Mr. Guelff. "It is this absolute shrieking that comes from the core of their soul. And it's so upsetting and unsettling it just gets inside your thoughts, and it's just impossible to tune out."

The techniques employed by Mr. Ritz's interrogation team for the Channel 4 experiment are among the mildest reported. The volunteers had the option to quit at any time, and some, including Mr. Guelff, asked to be released before it was over, after suffering vomiting and hypothermia.

Mr. Guelff, who says he was ambivalent about U.S. interrogation methods before participating in the TV show, says even the toned-down version was extremely unpleasant and, to him, did at times amount to torture.

"That was a light version of 'torture light.' The two most devastating things in the arsenal - not knowing when the whole experience may end, and the fear that I may actually be beaten to death, as has happened - were removed from the program," he said. "So the two scariest, most intimidating, and worst things of the whole [detainee] experience were kind of removed from this TV program. And so even under a light regimen, I found it extremely difficult and unpleasant."

What techniques would now be considered permissible for use by U.S. personnel against detainees are not publicly known. They will only be contained in an upcoming classified annex to a revised U.S. Army interrogation manual. Mr. Ritz says that is only right, because making interrogation techniques public will help an enemy know what to expect if he is taken into custody by U.S. military or intelligence personnel.