*Time* has a good article about how the loosening of standards for the interrogation of prisoners ended up escalating into torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Here's some selections that I thought were important:
In December 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed off on 16 additional measures for use at Gitmo, including stress positions, such as standing for long periods; isolation for up to a month; hooding during transportation and questioning; removal of clothing; and "exploiting individual phobias, e.g., dogs."
In January 2003, owing to concerns from the Navy's top lawyer, Rumsfeld abruptly rescinded his December order, pending a study, and ordered that the tougher measures could only be applied with his approval. Three months later, the study group recommended the use of some of the new interrogation techniques at Guantanamo. Dropped from the list were hooding, nudity and use of phobias. Left in place or added were isolation, giving detainees rations instead of hot meals, sleep deprivation and the use of rapid-fire questions.
WHAT WENT WRONG AT ABU GHRAIB?
Just about everything. Rules that were intended for Guantanamo, where the prisoner-to-guard ratio was 1 to 1, "migrated" during 2003 to Iraq's biggest prison, where the ratio was 75 to 1. Those rules were applied to a prison population that, according to the Schlesinger report, was made up "all too often" of Iraqis who were not valuable targets but bystanders caught in random roundups. Add to that the facts that the Army's intelligence units were poorly trained and badly managed, and the military police units assigned to Abu Ghraib were filled with reservists who showed poor judgment--and some of whom are now the subject of courts-martial.
What it seems like is that these memos were like the camel's nose under the tent i.e., once you are willing to stretch the rules, the door is open, and you can't necessarily control how far it goes. It doesn't seem like a big deal to make a hostile and uncooperative prisoner uncomfortable turning up the temperature in his cell; however, by allowing it, you pave the way to having a prisoner left for so many hours that he is nearly unconscious and pulling his own hair out. Some sleep deprivation makes a prisoner uncomfortable; too much can drive him into madness. Obviously, it wasn't made clear where the line is.
I am not necessarily opposed to making life a bit unpleasant for some of the worst prisoners -- even in our own prisons there are isolation cells, and giving these guys MREs instead of a hot meal doesn't seem excessive. However, even some of the things approved by Rumsfeld, while not precisely torture, certainly are abusive. Stripping a person naked is uncalled-for, especially since it is known that Middle Easterners are particularly modest, and it left prisoners vulnerable to sexual abuse. Hooding is cruel, unless it is only for very short periods. Exploiting a prisoner's known fears can verge on sadism. Heather MacDonald's article describes an interrogation where a prisoner is made to stand, and when he fell, he was just put back into position again. Clearly the interrogator felt this was no big deal, but if a person is falling down from exhaustion, surely the limit has been passed.
But I think the important thing here is that once harsh treatment is considered allowable, an attitude is cultivated that virtually anything is permissible -- whatever the intention was in the first place, clearly they had no control over how far it went.