updated 5/10/2004 9:48:00 AM ET 2004-05-10T13:48:00

Defining torture isn’t always an easy task.

Human rights groups see bright lines that should not be crossed: Torture, humiliation and cruelty, they say, are prohibited under domestic and international laws.

But those laws and conventions intentionally don’t provide military or intelligence officers with specific direction on the pressure techniques that are allowed, leaving wide gray areas in what is legal. That means key judgment calls are often left up to individuals who may make spot decisions, according to Army documents.

Sometimes, the right calls are made. Sometimes, they’re not.

In short, what goes on in interrogations may be “highly situation-dependent” — that is, dependent on what the guidance from the commander is, said Jerrold Post, who spent 21 years in the CIA and now directs George Washington University’s political psychology program.

“If the commander is saying, ‘Listen, these guys are under the auspices of the Geneva Convention, we have to set a higher standard’ ... that is really quite different than ‘We have got to get the information out of these guys and save our comrades. You have a certain amount of flexibility,’” Post said.

Abu Ghraib techniques undefined
The Defense Department is investigating more than 40 cases of possible misconduct against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, including as many as 12 unjustified deaths. The CIA inspector general, meantime, is looking into three detainee deaths during or after interrogations with agency personnel.

On Sunday, a senior Pentagon official said the U.S. military units holding and interrogating prisoners in Iraq, including the infamous Abu Ghraib facility, did not get a specific list of techniques permitted during questioning and were expected to follow long-standing limitations in the Geneva Conventions. The official discussed the matter on the condition of anonymity.

Still, it’s unclear whether U.S. commanders encouraged soldiers to use more aggressive approaches designed to elicit more information more quickly from prisoners.

Timeline: Iraq prisoner abuseMilitary police — seven now criminally charged for abuse of prisoners — contend they had little or no training in what was allowed, and what wasn’t, and that they were encouraged by military intelligence officials to help soften up the prisoners before questioning.

It appears interrogators had more leeway at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, where suspected al-Qaida terrorists are held, given an April 2003 Defense Department policy permitting increased pressure there allowing the use of bright lights, heat, cold, loud music and irregular sleep patterns. The Pentagon official said that policy, first reported by The Washington Post, was not applied to Iraqi detainees.

Government officials all the way up to President Bush have said those responsible for prisoner abuse will be held accountable. Some tactics — including allegations that prisoners were beaten, sodomized, forced to simulate homosexual acts or endure other abuses — could be punished.

Physical, mental torture forbidden
The CIA, which has its own guidelines, won’t discuss its training or interrogation approaches. But in the Army, legal guidelines provided by the service’s Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., say soldiers are not to use physical torture, such as beating, food deprivation or electric shock.

Mental torture — such as mock executions, abnormal sleep deprivation or chemically induced psychosis — also is forbidden.

Privately, former intelligence officers with interrogation experience say situations get murky because of an inherent pressure to extract information that could save U.S. lives. The skill, they say, is getting timely intelligence, without crossing legal barriers.

The Army has said interrogators are trained to use techniques considered less coercive, such as trying to play on detainees’ fears or despair. They could also befriend a chain smoker with cigarettes, or alternatively deprive the prisoner of them, for example.

Interrogators may also get aggressive by talking loudly or banging on tables, but they are not to threaten detainees, the Army says.

During a 16-week training course at Fort Huachuca, interrogators are taught that occasions may arise when they approach a line between lawful and unlawful actions, the legal guidelines say.

In such cases, they are instructed to ask themselves two questions:

  • Would a reasonable person feel their rights are being violated?
  • If the actions were against American prisoners of war, would I think the actions violated international or U.S. law?

If the answer to either question is affirmative, soldiers are not to use the technique. But, if doubt remains, they are told to seek direction from military legal authorities.

“Abnormal” sleep deprivation forbidden
Broadly speaking, the military’s laws and procedures are akin to a federal anti-torture law, which Attorney General John Ashcroft has said could be used to prosecute civilians. That could include U.S. contractors or CIA officers.

The law defines torture as an act specifically intended to inflict “severe physical or mental pain or suffering,” including the use of mind-altering substances or other procedures “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”

Torture also could be the a threat of death, or the threat that someone else will be subjected to abuse or threatened with death.

However, in both civilian and military cases, experts note that the laws and guidelines have qualifiers — words such as “profoundly” — that may complicate situations.

One of the most common techniques reported by freed Iraqis, and one of many gray areas, is sleep deprivation. Legal guidelines from the Army intelligence training center say soldiers are not to use “abnormal” sleep deprivation.

However, “that is probably one of those areas that, to a certain degree, it would be all right,” said Jeffrey T. Fowler, professor in the American Military University’s criminal justice and security management department.

Some clarifications have already been made. As part of interrogation policy changes last week, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new commander of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, said military officials there have to get permission before depriving inmates of sleep.

Miller insisted that Iraqi prisoners were now being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and that interrogation teams were following Army guidelines while trying to get “the best intelligence as rapidly as possible.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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