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Revelations of Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners Fuels Debate About Treatment of Detainees - 2004-05-04

The revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military guards has not only sent shock waves around the world, but fueled a debate about what is and is not permissible in the treatment of prisoners or detainees during wartime. For the professional interrogator, the lines in some forms of conduct are not always clear cut.

Only a few days ago, Abu Ghraib would have meant little to anyone outside of Iraq. Now, the name of the Baghdad prison is a world headline as the place where U.S. military guards apparently humiliated and abused Iraqi inmates in their custody.

Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, says the stories and pictures that have emerged from Iraq raise questions about whether the war on terror has blurred ethical lines in the treatment of prisoners.

?A senior general in the Judge Advocate's General side of the military (that is the military lawyers) said to me, these pictures are the equivalent of a major military defeat for the United States,? Mr. Ignatieff said. ?It's a real disaster for the honor of the United States military and it raises serious questions about how it manages interrogation and detention in the global war on terror.?

International humanitarian law, most notably the Geneva Conventions, as well as U.S. military law, lay down broad rules about prisoner treatment, especially when it comes to interrogation. At least some of those rules are open to interpretation, say some professional interrogators and the pressure for results can overshadow adherence to ethics.

Stress and verbal abuse are fairly standard techniques, interrogators say. Van Ritch, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and interrogator, said that the humiliation depicted in the photographs from Abu Ghraib was not only clearly out of line, it had nothing to do with interrogation.

?You may have him sit naked in a chair in front of you and you may even have a hood over his head to disorient him,? he said. ?For the purpose of disorienting and interrogating, that's one thing. That's one thing, but when you take photographs of somebody and when you do things that humiliate them as a human being with other people, that's clearly over the line. Where's the line? It just depends on the situation.?

Torture is clearly forbidden. Military manuals say torture is not only illegal, but counterproductive because a subject is likely to say anything to stop the pain.

Is torture only physical abuse? Or, as others contend, does it include forms of mental abuse or humiliation? Opinions differ.

However, articles and papers have started to appear in the post-9-11 era advocating that torture (in a regulated and limited form) may actually be necessary in some cases to get information when lives are at stake.

Mike Ritz, a former military interrogator who teaches not only interrogation, but how to resist torture, says in some cases, torture is effective. ?I'm going to be one of the few interrogators who will bluntly say, torture works,? he noted. ?But it only works if the person asking the questions knows how to ask the right questions. If you're asking the right questions and you're not leading them, you're not coercing them and just trying to get a confession or trying to get them to say what you want to hear. If you're truly asking the questions properly, it's an effective tool.?

Mr. Ritz said emphatically that he opposes the use of torture on moral grounds, as it violates U.S. norms of behavior.

Major William Casebeer, who teaches philosophy and military ethics at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said that any attempt to institutionalize torture as a military interrogation tool would have profound psychological effects on American society.

?Before you know it, in other words, if you examined all the institutions you would have to build in order to have a truly effective torture interrogation regimen - you know, where its effectiveness is what would justify it, morally speaking - you've suddenly got institutions in place that most of us would not be proud of having in our country,? he said. ?I mean, you can imagine the impact if a [military] service member were to have a Senior Master Torturer badge on their service dress [uniform], right? I mean, just a very strange world to live in.?

Besides, say intelligence professionals, a really good interrogator can get results without resorting to torture.