Pentagon officials released a new directive yesterday on Defense Department intelligence interrogations, mandating that all questioning of detainees in U.S. military custody include "humane" treatment and banning "acts of physical or mental torture."
The eight-page document for the first time pulls together a number of departmental policies on interrogations and the prevention of detainee mistreatment, exemplified by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in late 2003. The directive largely sets out how future policies will be developed, emphasizes proper treatment and lays out requirements for reporting violations as they occur.
The interrogations directive is the first step in the Defense Department's effort to clarify the rules for U.S. detention operations, which have come under intense scrutiny over the past two years amid allegations of abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The development of stricter detainee guidelines and a fuller understanding of what constitutes "humane treatment" have been at the center of a roiling debate within the Bush administration, and recently have spurred legislative efforts by Republican senators to legally define interrogation and treatment guidelines.
With the interrogations document, the department has shown it is incorporating some of the approach called for in legislation proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which would ban all treatment of prisoners that is cruel, inhumane or degrading.
But it is the next policy directive -- one that deals with the Defense Department's overall "Detainee Program" -- that has been the most contentious within the administration, with arguments centering on whether it should reflect McCain's approach and draw on language in the Geneva Conventions.
The White House has aggressively fought any language that it believes could impair the executive branch's ability to wage war and that might appear to limit the flexibility of U.S. government agencies, such as the CIA, in the terrorism fight.
Government sources familiar with the debate say that officials in the State and Defense departments largely agree that there is a need to use Geneva Conventions language to prevent confusion over what troops and U.S. agents are allowed to do. Vice President Cheney's office, they said, has pushed back, arguing privately that the vagueness of terms such as "humane" and "degrading" could lead to limitations on interrogation techniques, they said.
"Right now, they're just in a 'say no' mode, no matter how much it makes sense," said one Capitol Hill source familiar with the ongoing discussions. Cheney's office has declined to comment on his position in internal discussions.
Gordon R. England, acting deputy defense secretary, signed the interrogations directive on Thursday, but it was not released until after the New York Times reported on it yesterday.
The directive does not offer specific interrogation guidelines -- those are expected to appear in a revised edition of the Army Field Manual and in future classified training documents. It does, however, ban the use of military working dogs "as part of an interrogation approach" and says that dogs cannot be used "to harass, intimidate, threaten, or coerce a detainee for interrogation purposes."
The use of dogs was approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for use on a high-value detainee at Guantanamo Bay, and the tactic migrated to Iraq in 2003 before showing up in alarming photographs from Abu Ghraib.
The directive also specifically says that any non-military U.S. government agencies, foreign government representatives and other interrogators must agree to abide by Defense Department policies before gaining access to a detainee in military control. Although not singling out the agency, this section applies to the CIA, which hid detainees within the U.S. military detention system in Iraq and is alleged to have seriously abused detainees who were ostensibly in military custody.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that the new directive "doesn't say much."
"It doesn't fix the problem that there isn't a single clear standard consistent with the law and our values," Malinowski said. "Even if all these documents end up establishing appropriate standards, we need to remember that what the secretary of defense does today he can undo tomorrow."