The haunting picture of a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with wires attached to his hands who was told that he would be electrocuted if he stepped off has been broadcast around the world to considerable outrage.
But some military-trained interrogators say it can be perfectly permissible to deceive and intimidate a suspect during wartime to elicit vital information. And they fear a political overreaction that could curtail methods relied upon by the U.S. military for years to extract critical information about enemy plans.
"If putting some psychological pressure on someone saves the lives of 200 U.S. soldiers, then maybe that psychological pressure is OK," said Mike Ritz, a former Army interrogator and co-owner of Team Delta, a private, Pennsylvania-based program that runs interrogation workshops for law enforcement officers, who have to follow more stringent rules.
Ritz, who was trained at Fort Huachuca, an Army installation in Arizona, said military interrogators' means may surprise civilians or offend their sensibilities, but "this is war and interrogators aren't gentlemen. We are liars. And civilians might not understand that."
Practices such as lying to prisoners, intimidating them, screaming at them, stripping them, hiding their faces under hoods, and depriving them of toiletries and comforts are permissible to a degree if there is a valid reason, Ritz said.
But he drew the line at the sort of excesses allegedly committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, such as sodomizing prisoners with a broom and forcing them to simulate and commit sex acts.
However, in a report released yesterday, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba called placing a hood over an Iraqi prisoner's head and attaching him to wires "intentional abuse."
Robert K. Goldman, an American University law professor who specializes in human rights issues, said what went on at Abu Ghraib begs "for a thorough investigation."
"Certainly, making a person uncomfortable may not pass the line, but some of these things are really particularly humiliating," he said.
Interrogation experts say it is common for questioners to lie about their rank or intentions to ensure a prisoner's attention. They might threaten a captive as a bluff, then ease up to manipulate the grateful prisoner into becoming emotionally dependent - a technique called "pressure and release."
Ritz said the electrocution threat "goes back to the old argument of how far do we want to go, and are we doing this maliciously or is there a function? It's a gray area."
But Goldman said: "Would we want this happening to our soldiers if they were interrogated? There is a kind of golden rule here. What if the shoe were on the other foot?"
Torture is prohibited under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the United Nations' Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The latter was ratified by the Senate in 1994.
Taguba's report criticizes "key senior leaders" for failing to prevent abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Gary Myers, the lawyer for one of the six reservists from a Western Maryland unit facing criminal charges in the incidents, blamed military intelligence interrogators for most abuses.
The accused soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company, he said, "had no understanding of the mores of that world and therefore would have had no idea how to humiliate an Arab subject. That had to come from somewhere."