Where Does Interrogation Become Torture?

In early 2003, as U.S. troops were still racing north to Baghdad, chaos and looting erupted in the southern city of Basra, where a man walked up to ABCNEWS with a handful of photographs he had found digging through the rubble of the secret police building, which had been set on fire.

The pictures showed torture victims — some burned, some blinded. They were snapshots of life under Saddam Hussein. Seemingly it was over, because America was in Iraq, and America does not torture.

But now come other snapshots, this time from Abu Ghraib prison depicting U.S. abuse of Iraqis.

Beyond the first shock come questions: Is shaming a man with nudity as bad as burning him or blinding him? And even if it's not, is this still a form of torture? And are there times when torture is justified — for example, if it will save the lives of your own soldiers?

The August 2003 suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was a kind of last straw moment for the U.S. military, after weeks where the Iraqi resistance had been killing U.S. troops and others one or two at a time.

Around that time, U.S.-run prisons began to swell with detainees. The goal was to get dangerous people behind barbed wire and find out what they knew that could save American lives.

How Rough Can It Get?

But in the process of trying to save American lives, a lot of innocent Iraqis were swept up. A lot of abuses were reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross to the coalition, and the events pictured at Abu Ghraib happened.

The Army says what happened in the photographs is not U.S. policy, though critics have voiced doubts. Still, the question is, how rough does the United States want its soldiers to get? If nighttime raids that terrify whole Iraqi families are acceptable, how about terrorizing just one prisoner with a dog if it's believed that it will save U.S. lives?

Taking the example out of Iraq, say for instance the FBI knew before 9/11 that something was planned and it had a suspect with knowledge. Should they have been able to torture him to stop it?

Israel has wrestled with this very question through decades of fighting terrorism. Like Americans, Israelis see themselves as leading a higher standard of morality than their enemies. But Israel used torture in its prisons, and when that came out in the 1980s, it caused a national debate and ultimately the setting of some new rules by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999.

The Israeli court ruled that some forms of physical pressure — including sleep deprivation, loud noises and physical shaking — are acceptable in "ticking bomb" situations where security forces believe that interrogation could avert an imminent attack.

Un-American Behavior?

Compared with Israel, there's been very little discussion about torture in the U.S. political world — at least until the Abu Ghraib pictures forced it.

One end of the discussion in this country is defined by the views of Michael Ignatieff, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"I just think we need to start with one simple idea, which is that liberal democracies do not torture, ever, period," Ignatieff says. "Wars on terror are a battle for hearts and minds. We can't win a battle for hearts and minds if we are seen to be torturing and abusing people in our care."

An ABCNEWS poll taken last fall said 78 percent of the American public opposes the use of torture to get information.

But a different measure of public sentiment might be the popularity of fictional American heroes who will do what they have to do to stop terrorism.

The television program 24 has repeatedly visited the torture topic. Its hero is a U.S. counterterrorism agent who is willing to resort to torture to save lives. For instance, to make a Middle Eastern suspect talk, he staged a mock execution of the man's child. Such scenarios reportedly have not angered viewers.

"They want to see our characters do whatever it takes to get the job done," says Joel Surnow, a writer for 24. "That includes torture. That includes crossing lines, legal lines, anything."

Real-World Rules

But in real life, there are rules. And at places like Fort Huachuca, the Army's interrogation training school in Arizona, officers insist those rules are drummed into students.

The United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which state, "No physical or mental torture, nor any form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information, of any kind whatever."

Greg Hartley, a former Army interrogator, now in the private sector, explains what he thinks that means in practice.

"We're allowed to trick, lie, and deceive," Hartley says. "But if it becomes torture, mental coercion, yeah, that's forbidden. Can I lie to you and tell you I'm someone I'm not? Absolutely. Can I tell you that this phone is hooked up to call your mother if you talk to me? Sure. But can I tell you that if you don't answer these questions, I'm going to hack off a finger? No."

Those may be the rules. The question is: Are they followed? Two former trainees at Fort Huachuca say there is a large gray area in what they were taught there.

"If technically you're not breaking the Geneva Convention, you're not breaking any law, you can do whatever you want to get the information out of somebody," says "Rafael," a former interrogation trainee.

"They're encouraging people to bend the rules to the maximum extent possible, if it helps to get the information," says "Margaret," another former trainee.

It's a complicated mix — needing to win, wanting to do the right thing. And Iraq is in a part of the world where, for a long time, as the Basra pictures suggested, not a whole lot of energy was spent worrying about the Geneva Conventions.