That question was at center-stage yesterday as U.S. senators questioned the second-ranking civilian administrator for the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz. Jack Reed, a senator from the Democratic Party, asked the deputy defense secretary whether he considered hooding prisoners and depriving them of sleep to be "humane."
In highly charged and testy exchanges, Reed asked, "Seventy-two hours without regular sleep, sensory deprivation, which would be a bag over your head for 72 hours -- do you think that's humane?" Pressed repeatedly to answer, Wolfowitz responded. "I believe it's not humane," Wolfowitz said. "It strikes me as not humane."
The testimony was highly charged because it went to the heart of what for some lawmakers is the central concern in the Abu Ghurayb scandal. The concern is that the U.S. government must not only find and punish the individual soldiers guilty of abuse. It must also determine whether the abuses resulted in part from a larger, systemic disregard for human rights within the military that now needs to be corrected.
The possibility of "systemic" problems has been debated in Washington ever since the pictures of some soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners emerged late last month. The pictures depict hooded prisoners forced to assume sexually humiliating poses by their smiling captors.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has consistently said that the Pentagon is observing the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and that the abuses are the acts of a few aberrant soldiers. He restated that position yesterday as he made a surprise visit to Abu Ghurayb on a one-day trip to Baghdad. "The United States government announced with respect to Iraq that the Geneva Conventions -- Articles 3 and 4 -- apply for the Iraqi prisoners or war and apply for the civilian non-military detainees," Rumsfeld said. "That has been the case from the beginning."
He continued: "And all of the orders and instructions that I have seen or that I know about say that. People are trained in that, supposedly. Full stop. Therefore, anyone who is running around saying the Geneva Convention did not apply in Iraq is either terribly uninformed or mischievous. In either case it is harmful to the country."
But Rumsfeld's assertions have drawn fire in Washington because they come as congressional hearings reveal that some interrogation practices approved by the Pentagon involve the use of threatening, disruptive, and stressful procedures. The U.S. daily "The Washington Post" reported that the approved list of practices identifies two categories of measures, one approved for all detainees, the other requiring special authorization from senior commanders. The papers says, "among the items in the second category are 'sensory deprivation, stress positions, and dietary manipulation (and) forced changes in sleep patterns.'"
Many human rights groups have called those sorts of procedures violations of the Geneva Conventions. The conventions, which date to the 1920s and have since been signed by almost all nations, prescribe how prisoners of war should be treated by captors. The state in part that "no physical or moral coercion shall be exercised against protected persons, in particular to obtain information from them."
David Roth, the executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, recently criticized U.S. interrogation techniques in Iraq. He said that "international law and domestic law are absolutely clear: You can never torture a detainee regardless of the circumstances, even in the midst of a war. Similarly, you can never engage in cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment."
Some opinion makers debating the Abu Ghurayb scandal are asking whether -- in the wake of 11 September -- the U.S. administration sent confusing signals to the military when it loosened its observation of the Geneva Conventions in the interest of extracting information from terrorist suspects.
"The Washington Post" said in an editorial early this month that the Abu Ghurayb abuses "can be traced, in part, to policy decisions and public statements" by Rumsfeld. The editorial adds, "beginning more than two years ago, Mr. Rumsfeld decided to overturn decades of previous practice by the U.S. military in its handling of detainees in foreign countries."
The Pentagon determined that terrorist suspects captured in Afghanistan could be detained off U.S. territory at a U.S. military base in Cuba and deprived of rights under the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld said at the time that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay would be treated "for the most part" in "a manner that is reasonably consistent" with the conventions.
At issue now is the extent to which the precedent established at Guantanamo Bay may have influenced procedures in Iraq. A recent report on the abuses at Abu Ghurayb by U.S. Army General Antonio Taguba says that guards at Abu Ghurayb were not instructed on the convention provisions and that no copies of them were posted in the facility.
In the days ahead, there is likely to be much more attention paid to the question of whether the U.S. military today is doing enough to assure soldiers in Iraq follow the Geneva Conventions, and to whether the abuse was more widespread than already reported.