The Pentagon has been forced to delay the release of its updated Army Field Manual on interrogation because of congressional opposition to several provisions, including one that would allow tougher techniques for unlawful combatants than for traditional prisoners of war.
The Defense Department's civilian leaders, who are overseeing the process of rewriting the manual, have long argued -- along with the Bush administration -- that the Geneva Convention does not apply to terrorists or irregular fighters. The United States needs greater flexibility when interrogating people who refuse to fight by the rules, they have said.
But some lawmakers think that creating different rules for enemy prisoners of war and irregular fighters contradicts the torture ban passed by Congress last year, which requires a "uniform standard" for treating detainees.
The ban was adopted after mounting worldwide criticism of U.S. detention practices in Iraq and Afghanistan and at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The issue has confronted the Bush administration abroad and at home, and the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in as early as next month.
The Pentagon began work on rewriting the Army Field Manual a year ago, after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. The new manual would replace a guide that critics said provided insufficient direction to military police and interrogators.
Lawmakers expected to see the new document last month. However, the Pentagon canceled those briefings and instead described the manual to only a handful of senior senators and aides. As the dispute with Congress has grown, the military has continued to delay the document's release -- and defense officials say they do not know when they will release the new manual.
The specific interrogation practices in dispute remain classified. The military is rethinking whether to publicly release the list of do's and don'ts or to keep them secret.
The Pentagon has said it will treat captured terrorists humanely whether or not they are deemed to be protected under the Geneva Convention.
But lawmakers have blamed varying standards of treatment and vague regulations for contributing to abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
A measure championed last year by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) banned torture and established the Army Field Manual as the standard for how detainees should be treated governmentwide.
The measure prohibits "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." The McCain amendment also sets up "uniform standards" for interrogation.
"No person in the custody ... of the Department of Defense or under detention in a Department of Defense facility," the law reads, "shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation."
But there is a debate over the meaning of the provision. An administration official said Wednesday that nothing in the McCain amendment prohibited treating prisoners of war or unlawful combatants differently.
But a congressional aide said the meaning of the amendment was clear.
"They couldn't be further from the mark," the aide said. "The intent of Congress with regards to the McCain amendment was to have a single, uniform standard for all detainees."
The aide and other government officials who discussed the Army Field Manual for this article spoke on condition of anonymity because the document has not been released and the interrogation rules remain classified.
For now, lawmakers and their staffs are keen to avoid a public fight with the Pentagon. Senators still hope to persuade defense officials to alter the manual and create a single standard before it is officially released.
The overhaul of the Army Field Manual has been in the works for a while. The Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., created the first draft in May 2005. Pentagon officials began coordinating the draft with other Defense Department directives on interrogation.
But work on the manual and the other directives stalled when McCain proposed establishing the manual as the governmentwide standard on how detainees should be treated.
Vice President Dick Cheney pressured senators to drop McCain's measure, and the White House threatened last year to veto the defense authorization bill if the torture amendment was not dropped or modified. But McCain won the standoff, and the White House had to accept the limitation.
The dual standard on detainee treatment was not the only controversy surrounding the new field manual.
The finished manual and its classified addendum, or annex, was nearly complete two weeks ago, and military officials scheduled briefings with key senators. But State Department officials questioned the Pentagon's decision to withhold the classified annex from public release.
State Department officials told Pentagon counterparts that although they thought it would be best to publicly release both the manual and the annex, they would defer to the military's judgment and not try to force the release, according to an administration official.
Nonetheless, as a result, the congressional briefings were scaled back, according to government officials. When several senators echoed the State Department's concerns, the Pentagon began to reexamine the secrecy issue, a senior defense official said.
Although some in the Pentagon believe releasing the list of interrogation methods would allow Al Qaeda to train its members to resist the techniques, other military officials said withholding the list would appear as if America had something to hide.
"There is a discussion with Congress that caused us to pause to think," the senior defense official said.
The delay over the classification issue allowed the concerns over the dual standards on detainee treatment to gather steam on Capitol Hill.
A State Department official said the department did not object to different techniques being used for prisoners of war and unlawful combatants, and noted that the Geneva Convention makes a distinction between the two groups of fighters.
But not everyone inside the Pentagon is comfortable with the two standards. Some argue that it is important to give soldiers a single set of rules that apply to everyone.
"One camp says 'Terrorists don't play by the rules'; the other camp says 'Treat everyone the same,' " said a Defense Department official.
Although military officers do not appear to be challenging Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense who is taking the lead in writing the manual, some Army officers argue that the field manual should not have any gray areas. They have pushed for rules that are as unambiguous as possible.
"They don't want soldiers doing any interpretation," the defense official said.
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.