While deploring the most heinous incidents of abuse from Baghdad's Abu Ghrayb prison -- for example, the posing of Iraqis in humiliating sexual positions -- U.S. officials have acknowledged using other techniques, such as sleep deprivation and physical discomfort, to induce prisoners to cooperate.
They claim such practices do not violate international prohibitions on torture and -- given the ongoing war on terrorism -- are sometimes needed to extract information that could save innocent lives.
The debate is still open as to whether such interrogation techniques overstep international law. But one thing is clear: physical force -- beyond a relatively low level --- doesn't work well in practice.
Mike Ritz is an expert on interrogation, having served as a U.S. Army interrogator. He is now the CEO of a private company -- Team Delta -- that teaches interrogation techniques. He says there are some standard occasions when physical restraint is needed -- for example, if a prisoner is violent or poses a danger to the interrogator or himself.
"It depends on the intent [of the interrogator]. If there is a prisoner who is unsafe or who is being defiant, maybe who will lash out or something during the process, he or she may be placed in a position where they would take a more submissive role. For example, maybe they will be sitting on their knees, so that in order for that prisoner to lash out, it's going to be very difficult from that position," Ritz says.
But in general, he says, beyond a certain level, inflicting pain is counterproductive.
"Short-term, it can be an effective technique to use physical [pain]. It can be. But it's never reliable -- ever. See, this is the issue," Ritz says.
Ritz says the goal is to induce emotional or psychological stress in the prisoner by challenging the prisoner on his or her assertions, by withholding information, or even by providing false information. The point is to exploit a prisoner's fear of the unknown.
Ritz says physical force -- once applied -- breaks this tension.
"There's a stress-building process that occurs when you have a prisoner. You're always trying to build that stress level and that uneasiness and that fear of the unknown. When you lay all of your cards out on the table and you hit someone or you do all of these crazy physical abusive acts, you are laying all of your cards out on the table. The fear of the unknown has died. You have lost that stress that was building up. Because in fact, if any kind of pain has been inflicted, endorphins are kicking into the body to relieve the pain. It's all a really counterproductive process when it's taken to that level," Ritz says.
Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel for the watchdog group Human Rights Watch in New York, stresses that information provided under duress is inherently unreliable.
"The problem is that torture is not only morally reprehensible, it's also extremely ineffective. The body adjusts to pain. You often have to really ratchet up the treatment in order to get someone to talk to you. And then when they talk to you, they are talking to stop the treatment and not necessarily to tell you the truth," PoKempner says.
She goes further -- saying the use of pain in interrogation is counterproductive on an entirely different level. Since the Abu Ghrayb abuses came to light this year, and given the lingering suspicions of similar abuses at other U.S. detention facilities, the U.S. has lost much of its credibility as an advocate for human rights.
"It's incalculably damaged the United States as an advocate for human rights elsewhere around the world. There's an outpouring of scorn upon the poor men and women of the State Department whose job it is to monitor human rights and advocate for human rights from some of the worst abusers in the world governments. [Other governments ask the U.S.:] 'How can you talk to us when you yourself have condoned torture?' " PoKempner says.
She says no amount of intelligence is worth destroying that credibility.