By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/6/2004 8:55:16 AM ET 2004-05-06T12:55:16

When do interrogators cross the line between what is acceptable questioning and illegal abuse? And what constitutes torture?

International law experts say stripping a prisoner, except to remove weapons, is forbidden.

Is that torture?  According to Robert Goldman, international law professor at American University, “It certainly constitutes cruel and degrading treatment by any standard. Yes, that would be prohibited.”

Inspired by the abuse of American and Allied prisoners in World War II, internationally accepted laws forbid any kind of physical violence or threats of violence.

“The line is drawn when you’re talking about severe pain, severe mental anguish, and inhuman and degrading treatment,” said human rights expert Alexandra Arragia of Amnesty International.

Also not permitted is displaying tape or pictures of prisoners as the Iraqis did when they captured Army Spec. Shoshana Johnson and six other soldiers last year near Nasiriyah.

Even insults are outlawed.  Vietnam POW, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was tortured by the North Vietnamese. “Certainly, degrading treatment in any way is not acceptable,” he said.

So what is permitted?  Former Army interrogator and NBC analyst Col. Rick Francona said, “You can keep someone awake and alter their sleep cycle.  You can change the lighting so that they can’t keep a sense of time.  You can deprive them of a watch or clock to keep them off balance.”

Former Army interrogator Mike Ritz now teaches interrogation techniques — how to follow the law and still get results. “What we can do is yell and we can intimidate and you know, we can offer an incentive or reward for cooperating,” he said.

What about sending prisoners to other countries that don't observe international law? Experts say the law is murky but NBC News has learned that some al Qaida prisoners have been secretly taken to other countries where the laws are more lax.

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