Members of Congress are looking for answers to very concrete questions on how the Central Intelligence Agency questions terror suspects.
Is it ever appropriate, for example, to put a naked detainee in a cold cell and douse him with water? If so, for how long? Should interrogators be able to lead people to think they are drowning (a practice known as waterboarding)?
Many lawmakers thought they had settled some of these questions last December, when they passed an antitorture amendment by broad majorities in Congress. But in his signing statement, President Bush claimed executive powers to exempt members of his administration from the amendment, should circumstances warrant.
Ever since, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and others have sought clarification on what, exactly, the Bush administration had ruled inbounds for detainee treatment.
President Bush says that "tough" alternative interrogation techniques are needed and have been useful, but won't disclose what they include. In a speech on Sept. 6, the president confirmed the existence of secret CIA detention facilities, but said that the "alternative set of [interrogation] procedures" used in these prisons was in compliance with the US law.
The White House and the GOP senators are now trying to find a compromise.
"We're having a very constructive and productive dialogue with senior officials at the White House," says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Progress is being made in good faith."
The new Army Field Manual would protect detainees from several of the disputed techniques, such as waterboarding. But the manual does not pertain to CIA interrogators, who operate outside the military chain of command. A majority of senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee want assurances that even those interrogations fall within the protections of national and international law, such as Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
"This is a matter of conscience.... Are we going to be like the enemy, or are we going to be the United States of America?" asked Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"We have to indulge the assumption that no one yet has been convicted of a crime," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "Does a person charged with a heinous murder lack that measure of honor that we can throw the Constitution and our values out the window?
Critics, citing press reports, say that there is evidence that secret CIA interrogations, as well as the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, went well beyond those norms. "Reports about the techniques employed by the CIA suggest that they include sexual humiliation, stress positions, prolonged standing, exposure to extreme temperatures, and waterboarding. All these techniques are clearly prohibited by Common Article 3," says a recent report by Human Rights First, an advocacy group based in New York.
"This is treatment that civilized nations do not engage in," said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the US Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, at a briefing on Friday.
So far, administration spokesmen have responded to specific questions about techniques in broad, general terms. They say they are reluctant to tip off terrorists to what might be used.
"What we're trying to do is answer a call that comes from the men and women at the CIA, that are responsible for questioning Al Qaeda detainees," said Stephen Hadley, national security adviser, also on "This Week." "And what they've asked for, very simply, is: 'Let us have clear standards.' These are good men and women."
Supporters of the Bush administration's strategy on detainees say this refusal to respond specifically to examples raised by critics is hurting the president's credibility.
"The differences between the Senate Armed Services bill and the administration's bill are really very, very slight, but nevertheless important," says David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, who consults with the White House on legal issues involving the treatment of detainees. "Torture is off the table, cruel and inhuman treatment are off the table. It really is a matter of things that can be perceived as humiliation, and that's culture and context specific."
For example: Waterboarding cannot be used, he says. However, cold-cell interrogations are a matter of degree: "Putting somebody in a place that isn't freezing or horribly hot for a long time is not appropriate, but ... there are very clearly degrees of environmental stress that are well below the level of cruel and inhuman treatment."
Cultural differences also play a role, he adds. "In our culture, to be interrogated by a woman is not degrading. In Islamic culture, it's very degrading. Are we supposed to be pandering to that definition ... and not taking advantage of someone's psychological weakness and use it as a lever?"