Washington The rules governing the treatment and interrogation of military prisoners are vague and leave a great deal of room for interpretation.
Torture or massive application of force is banned, but short of that, little about the physical handling of prisoners is spelled out, military and legal experts said Wednesday. They added that some of the current allegations would be clear violations.
"This is a highly unregulated area," said Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University, a specialist in legal aspects of the war on terrorism. "There's a gray area involving 'coercive interrogations,' and it includes a lot of the current allegations, including hooding, sleep deprivation and other things."
Even torture is not clearly defined.
"When it comes to torture, the gray area is huge. It's just an impossible area," said Gary Solis, a 26-year retired Marine officer and a lawyer who teaches a course on the law of war at Georgetown University's Law Center.
"It's impossible to lay out a bright line and say, 'On this side there's no problem. On this side there's a criminal violation.' You have to look at each case," Solis said. "What usually happens is, you see an event and then you ask, 'Is that over the line or not?"'
Some of the allegations coming out of Iraq appear to be well over that line. The rules clearly ban humiliation, including that of a sexual nature.
"You can submit prisoners to some moderate physical discomfort, but humiliation is specifically prohibited by the Geneva Conventions," said Jonathan Tepperman of the Council on Foreign Relations, an expert in international law, war crimes and human rights.
Two groups of rules apply to the treatment of detainees: the United Nations' Geneva Conventions and the Pentagon's Uniform Code of Military Justice, the vehicle by which violations of the conventions are prosecuted in the United States.
The Pentagon said that Geneva Conventions did apply to Iraqi detainees, but that enemy combatants who were captured were not prisoners of war, a classification under the conventions that limits what type of information may be elicited and whether the prisoners need legal representation.
The conventions also offer protections to civilian detainees under an occupying power, said Vienna Colucci of the Chicago office of Amnesty International. Many are the same as those for prisoners of war, she said: "Humiliation is not allowed, and there's always a respect for dignity."
Though the rules may be vague, the experts interviewed said it seems clear that violations occurred in the treatment of prisoners in Iraq.
And, rules aside, the kind of actions taken were "tragic, awful, just repulsive" -- and harmful to U.S. interests, said Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which met behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss the matter.
"It violates all of our standards. Ninety-nine percent of our troops are over there to do the right thing, to help Iraqi communities, and this totally undercuts their good efforts," Bond said.