Army Omits 'Humiliating and Degrading' Rule

Pentagon officials have reportedly decided to omit a Geneva Convention rule against "humiliating and degrading treatment" of detainees from a new Army manual. Alex Chadwick speaks to Los Angeles Times reporter Julian Barnes, who broke the story about the Pentagon's proposal.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Is the Supreme Court getting ready to rethink affirmative action? That story coming up. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. First, our lead: the Pentagon wants to reset rules for interrogating prisoners. And there's a private debate in Washington about what to do. This is the lead in today's Los Angeles Times. And we're joined by the reporter who broke the story, Julian Barnes. Julian, welcome.

Mr. JULIAN BARNES (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Thank you.

CHADWICK: Background here, ever since the scandals about torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Defense Department has been working on revising the basic field manual that outlines rules for interrogation. You write that the new manual drops a provision of the Geneva Convention that bars humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners. Why that change? Why do they want to drop that?

Mr. BARNES: The Pentagon believes that the rules they have in their policy directive that accompanies the manual would be too restrictive if they followed the letter of the Geneva Convention. They feel that detainees could use that ban on humiliating treatment to protest or prohibit with the Pentagon thinks of as effective questioning techniques.

CHADWICK: And give us an example. What do they mean when they talk about humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners? What are the kinds of things that they're imagining?

Mr. BARNES: Well, the Pentagon likes to say that one of the most effective ways to question, say, an insurgent in Iraq is to question his manhood. Say that somebody is not man enough to, say, set a roadside bomb. And soldiers say that that - more often than not - will get them an answer of, oh, yes, I can. And this is how I planted that bomb. So they say that's a perfectly humane technique, but that maybe that insurgent could argue that that is humiliating or degrading to be questioned in that way.

CHADWICK: These rules actually go back to Geneva Conventions adopted after World War II that bar anything that would be humiliating and degrading for the treatment of prisoners. A lot of people think it's important to keep that rule. The opposition to the change comes from both the State Department and from senior people in Congress. Is that correct?

Mr. BARNES: That's right. Some of the backers of the McCain Amendment, as well as some people in the State Department feel that this is the sort of minimum standard that was put into the Geneva Conventions, something called Common Article 3. And they feel it's important for America's standing in the world to preserve this.

CHADWICK: And if the Pentagon adopts these new rules, I mean, one of the arguments in this debate is whatever rule you adopt, you have to concede that it would apply to American prisoners who might be captured by an enemy somewhere. Is the Pentagon willing to say it's okay to humiliate and degrade Americans who are held captive by others?

Mr. BARNES: Well, the Pentagon believes that they are not eroding the rules for, you know, regular soldiers, that you can treat insurgents or terrorists differently because they are not - they don't play by the rules. They are unlawful combatants.

But the critics of this move say that once you start eroding the baseline, the minimum standards of Geneva, the whole convention becomes weaker and could put American troops in danger.

CHADWICK: How about international repercussions with this, because there's been a lot of criticism from even our allies around the world about what happened at Abu Ghraib and the kind of general American standards of interrogations.

Mr. BARNES: Yes, I'm told by defense officials that that is one of the biggest worries in other parts of the government, that this directive could further undermine the United States' standing with its allies.

Countries like Great Britain have been very uncomfortable with the statements the administration has made about suspending parts of Geneva. So they think that if they could reinstate this Geneva provision, they would improve and patch up relations with some allies.

CHADWICK: Well, there is this debate going on that you write about. How is it going to be resolved? And when is it going to be resolved?

Mr. BARNES: Well, the Pentagon said this morning there's still no timetable to release the field manual or the policy directives that accompany it. So we don't know if Congress or the state will get them to rethink this or not.

CHADWICK: Julian Barnes, reporter for the Los Angeles Times in Washington. Julian, thank you.

Mr. BARNES: Thank you.

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