Should the British Hostages Have Talked?

U.S. troops are trained to avoid the kind of statements their British marine and navy counterparts made while in Iranian captivity this week, but the rules remain murky on the legality of uttering forced "confessions," U.S. military officials said Friday.

The British sailors and marines who publicly apologized to Iran for "apparently" entering Iranian waters -- which the British and American governments say their vessels did not do -- say they were coerced by their captors.

In a news conference in the United Kingdom today, the service members said they were under constant psychological pressure, kept in isolation and stripped naked.

Their statements would seem to violate Article V of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, which states, "When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause."

The key phrase -- "to the utmost of my ability" -- allows room for debate, U.S. military officials say.

"This is a judgment call that you've got to make at the time," U.S. Army spokesman Col. Dan Baggio said of the British troops. "If their goal was to achieve freedom and they were quick to go back and recant what they said, obviously an American would do something similar. The bottom line is we try to adhere to Article V, but everyone is human."

Some American commanders, however, insist that making statements that go beyond name, rank and serial number, violates the code of conduct, Baggio added.

They note that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not confess despite two broken arms the Vietnamese never set after being captured during the Vietnam War. He was tortured with ropes that held his arms back, his teeth were broken and he suffered cracked ribs. He refused to accept an offer of early release from a North Vietnamese prison because his colleagues would not be released as well.

Britain's top naval officer today defended the sailors and marines, telling the British Broadcasting Corp. the crew reacted with "considerable dignity and a lot of courage."

"In the context of the operation that morning, with the force that was shown against them, they made exactly the right decision. I stand by what they did," said Adm. Jonathon Band, commander of the Royal Navy.

There has been no talk of punishment for the troops, but British military officials plan to investigate the statements.

"We certainly wouldn't want this to happen again," Band said.

He said the operations that involved routinely boarding foreign ships in Iraqi waters have been suspended during this review.

Some in the British press have been highly critical of the sailors and marines. The Daily Telegraph complained in an editorial that "the seized personnel lost no time in admitting to having trespassed and in apologizing for their mistake. The old military practice of giving name, rank and number, and no more, has obviously been abandoned."

Steven Glover, a columnist for the Daily Mail, was more forgiving.

"I do not blame the hostages for their apparent willingness to confess and apologize," Glover wrote. "But we had better be honest with ourselves. In no previous era -- not during World War II or Korea or Suez or the Falklands -- would British servicemen have behaved in such a manner."

There are American parallels, such as North Korea's 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence gathering ship, in the Sea of Japan. Pueblo Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher surrendered an American warship for the first time since the loss of the USS Chesapeake in 1807. He and the crew were shown in North Korean propaganda films.

The Navy concluded that the crew fulfilled their duty to resist by conveying in the propaganda that they had been badly treated. One used the phrase "penetration, no matter how slight, justifies the charge," the Uniform Code of Military Justice's definition of rape. Some of the sailors were seen in photographs taken during their captivity extending their middle fingers at their captors.

The British troops who were captured on March 23 had been patrolling the seas in two inflatable Zodiac boats. They were held for a total of 13 days. The British officials say the area where they were seized by the Iranians were clearly Iraqi waters under a U.N. mandate.

"Most people in the American military -- at least in the Army -- feel strongly about Article V, and you want to resist to the greatest extent possible," Baggio said.