Military secrecy fight stalls change in detainee rules

Two years after a prisoner abuse scandal rocked the U.S. military, officials are still wrangling over how best to guide troops on the handling of detainees to ensure that such mistreatment does not happen again.

The latest debate, over whether certain interrogation techniques should remain secret, has delayed the release of a long-awaited military manual on the treatment of detainees.

The issue centers on whether the new Army field manual should include a classified portion that would detail what interrogators can and can’t do to prisoners. Such a secret section, however, could fuel concerns that the U.S. military was hiding techniques that violate the law or rules governing detainee treatment.

In recent days, several members of Congress privately cautioned the Pentagon against keeping parts of the manual secret. Those conversations led defense officials to privately debate which parts _ if any _ should be classified, according to several Capitol Hill and senior defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private and the manual has not yet been made public.

The classified section could include details such as how long prisoners can be forced to sit or stand in certain positions or exactly how hot or cold their holding areas can be kept.

Triggered by congressional concerns, the latest delay comes more than two years after photographs surfaced showing U.S. troops beating, intimidating and sexually abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

The Pentagon and the Army have been reviewing a draft of the manual for more than a year and were about to release a final version last week when debate over it intensified. The Bush administration is treading carefully on the issue, mindful that detainee treatment has the potential to become a high-profile controversy once again, this time in an election year.

In a private meeting at the Pentagon last week, Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the Senate Armed Services Committee, broached the issue of the manual’s classified section with Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., discussed the issue as well at a separate meeting with England.

“I think they’re making progress. I think the debate’s a healthy thing. It should be examined,” Warner said in a brief interview Tuesday.

Officials say there are arguments being made both for and against the inclusion of a classified section.

Those who favor including it argue that enemy combatants will be able to train and prepare for specific interrogation techniques and limits if they know exactly what they are.

“You don’t want the enemy to know what are the techniques available,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Armed Services Committee member who supports keeping part of the manual secret. “Being classified and humane and within the rule of law of armed conflict are not inconsistent.”

On the other hand, making part of the handbook a classified secret could prompt questions about whether the U.S. is hiding practices that might be considered torture. Greater transparency, some argue, would dispel suspicion that the military is exploiting loopholes in the laws.

Last year, Congress _ led by McCain _ passed a measure against the administration’s wishes that explicitly banned cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by U.S. troops.

Congress acted after photographs surfaced two years ago showing U.S. troops beating, intimidating and sexually abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, said that if portions of the new manual are classified in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, it would send the wrong message to U.S. troops and the world. “It makes you wonder: Has (the Defense Department) learned nothing from this debacle?” she said.

Several defense officials said the public portions of the new interrogation manual define more clearly the roles and responsibilities of soldiers involved in detainee operations, outline how to report violations, and say the military must adhere to prisoner protections.

The manual, which is to replace an early 1990s Army handbook, also broadly explains the responsibilities of military intelligence officers and interrogators versus the duties of military police and others who may be at a detention facility, the officials said.

After the Abu Ghraib scandal there were concerns that soldiers were confused about what they could or couldn’t do and were not clear about who was in charge. The new manual is supposed to clear up that confusion.

In April 2004, photographs were released showing Abu Ghraib prisoners being sexually humiliated and forced to assume painful positions. Others showed U.S. dog handlers holding onto barking dogs that were straining at their leashes, inches away from cowering prisoners.

The photos brought a barrage of criticism and triggered about 600 investigations into detainee-related incidents. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, 85 military members have been court-martialed, 93 have received nonjudicial punishments, and there have been 81 other administrative actions taken due to prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, 12 courts-martial and 11 criminal convictions involved detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. One court-martial is pending.

The previous interrogation handbook specified that torture is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, and listed various mental and physical abuses that are banned.

Along with the new manual, the Pentagon is preparing to release a new directive on the treatment of detainees, including requirements for holding, transferring and releasing them. There will also be a third document involving medical treatment of detainees.


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