If a Terror Suspect Won’t Talk, Should He Be Made To?

The New York Times
March 8, 2003

KUWAIT — The Philippine police knew they had an unusual case when they arrested Abdul Hakim Murad on Jan. 6, 1995. After Mr. Murad accidentally set a small fire in his Manila apartment, the police reportedly found gallons of sulfuric acid and nitric acid, as well as beakers, filters, funnels and fuses. A week before Pope John Paul II was to visit Manila, they had uncovered a bomb-making factory.

In many countries, terrorism suspects like Mr. Murad rarely receive the local equivalent of the Miranda rights; instead, they are tortured. Perhaps the authorities are trying to get sensitive information, perhaps they are trying to dispense extra-legal punishment. The methods vary, from gentler tactics, occasionally referred to as “torture lite,” like sleep deprivation, to hard torture, like the administration of electric shocks. If a prisoner happens to die, this can be explained away as a suicide or “a sharp drop in blood pressure,” as the Egyptian authorities have described the demise of prisoners who were brutalized to death.

Mr. Murad, a Pakistani, was not a talker. Although a computer in his apartment contained information about his plans, he resisted requests to give details of what he was doing. His interrogators reportedly beat him so badly that most of his ribs were broken; they extinguished cigarettes on his genitals; they made him sit on ice cubes; they forced water down his throat so that he nearly drowned.

This went on for several weeks. In the end, he provided names, dates and places behind a Qaeda plan to blow up 11 commercial airliners and fly another one into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also confessed to a plot to assassinate the pope.

Mr. Murad’s case has been used, in some quarters, to justify torture. Without violent pressure, terrorists might never talk, and then their plans will proceed and civilians will die. This thinking is receiving renewed attention after the arrest, in Pakistan, of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s chief of operations and the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

After his capture last week, Mr. Mohammed was handed to the United States and taken out of Pakistan, though it is not known where he is being held or how he is being interrogated. United States officials have said that Mr. Mohammed, or any other terrorist suspect, would not be tortured. But if he prefers not to talk, should he be made to?

The easy answer, in these times of war and fear, is yes. But relieving a suspect of his fingernails is not always the best way to get him to talk, and if he does talk, he may not tell the truth. A suspect who wants to avoid the unkindness of having his teeth extracted with a set of dirty pliers may say whatever he thinks his torturers want to hear.

Beyond that, many terrorism experts believe that in the long run torture is a losing strategy. Pain and humiliation will turn some innocent suspects into real terrorists and turn real terrorists into more-determined monsters.

James Ron, a professor of conflict studies at McGill University in Canada, is the author of a lengthy report on torture in Israel. He met with Israeli officials and soldiers, as well as Palestinian detainees who said their interrogators made it known that they had detailed information about terrorist groups. Mr. Ron believes this intelligence was gathered largely by the use of physical and economic coercion, but at a significant and counterproductive cost.

“Most studies show that torture is hugely degrading and humiliating, in addition to being painful,” Mr. Ron said. “Some people get destroyed in the process and curl up in a ball and go away, but some people fight back. If you’re doing this to just 10 people it’s perhaps not a security threat, but if it’s the F.B.I. and all its allies across the world, then it’s a big deal. A large chunk of the people who are being interrogated aren’t militants, they just might know someone who is. If they weren’t committed anti-Americans now, they would be after this process.”

Another reason brute force may not work well is simple: many terrorists have been through it before. No small number of Al Qaeda members have done jail time in Middle Eastern countries that practice torture. And most terrorists are steeped in cultures of deception; they know how to divulge bad information in a manner that might seem convincing.

In fact, in its apparent success, Mr. Murad’s interrogation shows torture’s limitations. Mr. Murad may have nearly died, but he didn’t crack until a new team of interrogators told him falsely that they were from the Mossad and would be taking him to Israel. Mr. Murad, who feared Jews as much as he hated them, quickly spilled the beans.

Thus, the real lesson. Prospects for gaining useful information are enhanced when interrogators apply psychological pressure, which includes lies, false promises and threats. “It is not the violence that is the core solution but the psychological techniques,” said a prominent terrorism expert. “You’ve got to engage in this psychological game. Not just pain but wearing him down physically and spiritually.”

For example, Mr. Mohammed’s two sons, 7 and 9, are reported to be in custody in Pakistan; threats against them, serious or not, might be far more persuasive than threats against Mr. Mohammed himself.

Although it may be less offensive to our moral sensitivities, “torture lite” may be no less illegal than its harder cousin. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”

But what qualifies as severe pain or suffering? A hood over the head? Putting a suspect in an uncomfortable position for a long time?

It depends on whom you ask. After it was reported in December that prisoners in American custody in Afghanistan were exposed to “stress and duress” interrogation techniques, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, sent a letter to President Bush. “Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or of war,” Mr. Roth wrote.

His letter also noted that news reports have said the United States is handing over some suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan, where torture is routine and brutal.

Human rights advocates are not the only ones disturbed by this strategy. “Such a practice of vicarious torture is imbued with an obvious hypocrisy that prevents the sending state — such as the United States — from having clean hands,” said an article in the summer edition of Parameters, a respected quarterly published by the United States Army War College. “Moreover, obtaining human intelligence from foreign governments is fraught with its own downside risk: such intelligence, filtered through a foreign government, may contain information tainted by that governments biases or hidden policy objectives.”

The White House has not officially said whether it hands over terrorist suspects to other countries for questioning, nor does it detail the techniques used by American interrogators, though it says all international laws are followed. In a sign of unease, the Pentagon now refers to its interrogators as “human intelligence collectors.”

The line between legitimate interrogation and outlawed torture is ill defined, and the reluctance of governments to disclose what they are doing intensifies this murkiness. It is nearly impossible to know whether, in a fetid basement cell in Cairo or Amman or Islamabad or Kabul, a suspected terrorist is having his limbs broken to safeguard against terrorism. And it is just as hard to know whether such deeds, if they are occurring, will enhance long-term national security or fuel a desire for retribution against America.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.