WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said for the first time Wednesday that officials are at odds over whether a new Army manual should endorse different interrogation techniques for enemy insurgents than are allowed for regular prisoners of war.
The debate hinges on whether suspected terrorists or other insurgents can be treated more severely than captured members of an enemy army. There are concerns such a distinction could fly in the face of a law enacted last year, pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that explicitly banned cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by U.S. troops.
"There is a debate over the difference between a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention and an unlawful combatant in a situation that is different from the situation envisioned by the Geneva Convention," Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. "And those issues are being wrestled with at the present time."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., pressed Rumsfeld on whether there will be one uniform standard for interrogations, which he said was the intent of McCain's legislation. And he asked whether the manual would allow anything that "would be considered unlawful if it were employed against American service members?"
Rumsfeld did not say whether there would be one uniform standard.
But he said the manual, which will guide troops on the handling of detainees, "will comply with U.S. law."
The key question is how that law, including McCain's anti-torture provision, is interpreted and how it would relate to the protections provided in the Geneva Convention.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush decided that "enemy combatants" captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan would not be considered POWs and afforded the protections of the convention. The Pentagon has felt compelled to look for unconventional approaches to gaining timely information from detainees that might help prevent additional attacks.
Many of those enemy combatants were sent to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Since then, in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandals that erupted in 2004, officials have argued over whether all detainees should be treated the same, or if military interrogators should be allowed to use more severe techniques against suspected insurgents -- such as those at Guantanamo.
Rumsfeld said a draft of the new manual has been circulated in recent weeks, and there have been meetings with members of Congress to discuss it.
Defense officials had also been debating whether to keep certain specific interrogation techniques secret, by including them in a classified section of the manual. Several members of Congress privately cautioned the Pentagon that keeping parts secret could raise suspicions that the United States was violating international and U.S. laws.
Some military officials, however, argued that disclosing details of interrogations would allow the enemy to prepare and train for them.