WASHINGTON – The senior U.S. commander in Iraq has moved to limit the military's allowable interrogation tactics, the Pentagon revealed Friday, eliminating most coercive techniques from even being considered.
The order from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search) on Thursday let military intelligence chiefs know that requests for such methods, which had been allowed with specific permission since September, would be turned down, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In its most comprehensive outline to date of methods that interrogators can use to question detained Iraqis, the Pentagon said Sanchez had approved 25 requests to isolate prisoners for interrogation since mid-October.
He had turned down three requests to put prisoners into uncomfortable positions to get them to talk, officials said.
Amid an international uproar over the photographed abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (search) near Baghdad, senior military officials also insisted that all interrogation techniques that have been approved have been allowable under international law.
Seven soldiers are facing military charges related to the abuse and humiliation of prisoners captured by the now-infamous photographs at Abu Ghraib. The soldiers and their lawyers have said military intelligence officials running the interrogations told military police assigned as guards to abuse the prisoners to make interrogations easier.
Techniques such as direct questioning without any physical contact still remain allowable without approval from high-level officers, said the officials, who are involved in the process of drafting and approving such rules in Iraq.
Until Thursday, more stressful techniques were allowed with approval from Sanchez. Those included depriving detainees of sleep for more than 72 hours, putting them in "sensory deprivation" with such tactics as hoods, or forcing them into "stress positions" such as kneeling or standing uncomfortably for more than 45 minutes.
Sanchez told military intelligence officers Thursday that he would not approve any stressful techniques other than putting prisoners alone in cells or in segregated units with only a small number of other detainees.
Some Democrats in Congress and other critics have said the interrogation rules, first laid out in September after a visit to Iraq by the then-commander of the prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, amounted to a green light for abuse. Pentagon officials heatedly denied that, saying prisoners always are treated under guidelines of the Geneva Conventions.
"That standard is being followed in Guantanamo and in Iraq," said Lawrence Di Rita, the chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search).
Some members of Congress and legal experts say some of the techniques discussed Friday violate the conventions, which constitute the core of the international laws of war.
They cite language in the section of the Geneva Conventions that applies to all detainees in Iraq. That language prohibits "physical or moral coercion" against prisoners, "in particular to obtain information from them or from third parties."
"It's obvious that some of the things we're talking about are coercion: putting people in stressful conditions, sleep deprivation for substantial periods of time, hooding," said lawyer and human rights expert Sidney S. Rosdeitcher. "Those things are plainly coercion."
The two military officials who briefed reporters anonymously included one who is a lawyer. Neither would answer questions about how the approved techniques comply with the Geneva Conventions.
They offered examples, contending that forcing a detainee to stand at attention is permissible unless he is required to do so for so long it becomes painful.
"There's an enormous amount of subjectivity in the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, and mostly what can not be done," Di Rita said.
A congressional source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lawmakers have asked the Pentagon for records that would document the review that the interrogation rules received before they were placed into effect.
Sanchez approved in September a modified set of interrogation rules after recommendations from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, then the commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Miller now runs the U.S. military's prisons in Iraq.
The military officials said Sanchez and other military officials scrubbed Miller's recommendations, changing them because Iraqi prisoners are subject to the Geneva Conventions while the Bush administration holds that Guantanamo detainees are not.
Civilian contract interrogators hired by the military must follow the rules, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. It's unclear whether CIA operatives, who interrogated some prisoners at Abu Ghraib, must follow the military's rules as well.
The approved techniques generally involve interrogators trying to psychologically manipulate prisoners. They include approaches familiar to television police dramas:
— Telling prisoners they would get better treatment, such as better food or roomier cells, if they would cooperate.
— Suggesting that interrogators already know everything, so the detainee might as well talk.
— Repeatedly asking the same questions.
— Staying silent.
— Playing on the prisoner's pride and ego.