updated 9/26/2006 7:30:49 PM ET 2006-09-26T23:30:49

One prominent feature is missing in debate over President Bush's deal with Senate leaders on the treatment of alleged terrorists in custody: an open and explicit accounting of interrogation techniques that may be used.

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The deal, which the House and Senate are expected to vote on before Congress adjourns this week, prohibits consequences more than actions, and leaves much open to interpretation. For example, interrogators would not only be barred from causing captives "prolonged" mental suffering, as they are now, but would be prevented from inflicting "serious and nontransitory" mental harm, whether the technique is prolonged or not.

Exactly what techniques may and may not be used under such strictures is unclear even to those who negotiated the agreement. It gives Bush leeway to interpret the language and to produce regulations that senators say they can challenge if the steps go too far. But it's unlikely Bush will lay out techniques in enough detail for everyone to be sure what's allowed and what's beyond the pale.

Interrogation techinques
Measures used against detainees in secret CIA prisons have not been fully discussed in an open forum for fear of hampering interrogators or helping terrorists train people to deal with such steps. But a partial picture has emerged in public reports and conversations with intelligence officials who have discussed interrogation on condition they not be identified.

Among the tens of thousands of people held by U.S. authorities during the war on terrorism, 96 are thought to have been in secret CIA custody.

A look at what's known about some of the more radical techniques and their possible fate under the agreement:

-Sleep deprivation and disorientation:
These tactics are thought to have been used in extraordinary circumstances. Specific methods may involve using loud noise, such as clattering machinery or blasting music, to keep captives awake; interrogating them day and night or moving them from place to place to disorient them.

"People who have gone through this describe this as one of the worst things that a human being can experience because sleep is such a fundamental need," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. He was speaking generally about the technique, not with specific knowledge about how U.S. interrogators might have applied it.

-Temperature extremes:
Exposing prisoners to uncomfortable cold or heat for long periods.

-Stress positions:
Prolonged, forced standing is also believed to have been used in some cases. Captives might be threatened with beatings if they sit, or shackled in a way to prevent sitting. Various other forms of discomfort have been allowed.

-Simulated drowning:
Meant to induce panic, the technique is commonly known as waterboarding because it may involve a prisoner being tied to a board, head slanted down, a wet towel placed on his face and water applied to the towel. As many as four prisoners are believed to have been subjected to this.

"It's a technique that we need to let the world know we are no longer engaging in," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of those who negotiated the deal.

Induced stress
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another broker of the agreement, said the deal "could mean" the prohibition of extreme sleep deprivation, hypothermia, waterboarding and other steps that amount to torture or come close to it. Yet he acknowledged he has not been privy to everything that has been done with captives and that the agreement's practical effects remain to be seen.

McCain, who was beaten as a Vietnam prisoner of war, said some forms of induced stress are an important and valid tool for interrogators.

The most extreme steps have been clearly prohibited all along, including closed-hand punching, electric shock, terrorizing suspects with dogs, disfigurement and sexual abuse, although some were used in criminal fashion at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military-run prison in Iraq. Openhanded slapping has not been similarly banned.

An updated U.S. Army manual released this month, which applies to all the armed services but not the CIA, explicitly bans withholding food and water, performing mock executions, using electric shock, burning and causing other pain and waterboarding, among other techniques.

The deal between the administration and the Senate is packed with imprecise adjectives.

It would make it a crime to inflict extreme physical pain, burns or physical disfigurement of a serious nature, or impairment of the function of organs or of mental faculty. Mental harm that is "serious," not just "severe," would be prohibited.

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