an uneasy sense of sanction for abuse
war on terrorism has prompted a significant shift in public acceptance of
iron-fisted techniques to extract information from prisoners, a tolerance
that experts say set the stage for the shocking treatment of Iraqi
detainees by U.S. soldiers.
"Nobody defended torture before
9/11," said Charles B. Strozier, director of the Center on Terrorism
at John Jay College of the City University of New York. "Pollsters
didn't even ask the question. Now people suddenly embrace torture big
Since 2001, Strozier and others have
charted a phenomenal increase in public discourse arguing that torture or
psychological abuse is justified in times of imminent national-security
threats. Even renowned Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has suggested
that investigators should be able to seek court-issued torture warrants in
The ethically murky debate - it is
unclear how far one can overstep the law in the name of attacking a
perceived larger evil - helped to create the conditions in which U.S.
soldiers apparently felt so comfortable about abusing prisoners at Abu
Ghraib prison near Baghdad that they posed for snapshots with the naked
"There has been a persistent set of
stories about the use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and secret
detention centers that seem to violate U.S. laws," said Douglas A.
Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in
Minneapolis. "The issue has largely not been addressed by the press.
The underlying message is that the U.S. should be using torture."
The photographs from the Iraqi prison
have put a human face on the issue. "It's not an abstract thing
anymore," Johnson said. "It really personalizes the issue. The
glee in our soldiers' faces is so incongruous with our values."
But even though the revelations about
the abuse of Iraqi prisoners have prompted congressional inquiries and
public condemnation, Americans still do not appear to rule out using
Nearly half those responding to an
unscientific CNN online poll - 47 percent - agreed when asked whether
torture is ever justified in interrogation. The subject remains shrouded
in euphemisms. "The tendency is to talk about 'abuse' rather than
'torture,' " Johnson said.
"You see this fallout that is
happening, but I'm not sure if there's a sea change going on," said
Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch. "I hope we
can look forward to tighter safeguards in the military and intelligence
The law regarding abuse of prisoners is
unequivocal. The "use of force, mental torture, threats, insults and
exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind" is
prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and military law, according to the
Army's interrogation manual and current legal guidelines issued by the
Army's intelligence school.
Some interrogators, distressed by the
portrait they see emerging from Iraq, say the only course to follow is the
straight and narrow - for legal, moral and practical reasons.
"My experience is you can undermine
their defense by treating them well," said Stuart A. Herrington, a
retired Army colonel with 30 years' experience as an interrogator.
"They wonder why you're not asking more questions. And they then open
up. If Saddam Hussein was in my control, he'd be quite comfortable."
But since 9/11, many commentators imply
- and some openly advocate - that such a legal approach is naive. They say
there are urgent circumstances justifying the mistreatment of prisoners to
force them to cough up information.
Some say the atmosphere issues from the
top. In early 2002, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that
prisoners detained as stateless enemy combatants in the war on terrorism
"do not have any rights" under the Geneva Conventions, and
suggested that the conventions might be outdated.
The cable-television talk shows quickly
picked up the debate. In April 2002, retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan,
an experienced interrogator, disputed the notion that torture is
"I'll be honest by saying that I
served a lot of time in Vietnam, and in some cases where I worked on
prisoner operations, we did go a little bit beyond what normal
interrogation techniques would give you, and we got phenomenal
information," Cowan said.
The debate also spread to the military's
"From a moral and legal
perspective, the answer would seem to be a clear-cut no, don't do it. . .
. But in the harsh world of transnational terrorism, the reality is far
from black and white," Paul J. Smith, an assistant professor at the
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, wrote in a 2002
article in Parameters, the publication of the U.S. Army War College.
Some advocates of "stress and
duress" tactics - abuse that falls short of physical torture -
pointed to an article in the Atlantic Monthly last year that made a case
for "torture lite."
Advocates of torture often cite
experiences in Israel, where the General Security Service, known in Hebrew
as Shabak, has used a variety of controversial methods over the years,
including isolation, sleep deprivation, hooding, exposure to extremes of
hot and cold, painful shackling, and beatings, according to Israeli
In 1987, a commission led by retired
Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau wrote recommendations
permitting the use of "moderate physical pressure" to question
prisoners who interrogators believed had information that could prevent
pending attacks - the "ticking-bomb" scenarios.
"If you have a suspect that you
think has information about an explosives laboratory, that is
dangerous," said Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy
Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, an academic center near Tel
Aviv. "But maybe not sufficient to use moderate force and heavy
psychological pressure, because there are dozens of explosives labs. But
if you know that this guy planted a bomb on a bus in Tel Aviv that is
going to blow up . . . but you don't know which bus, and you believe that
with moderate pressure you can get this information from him, this is a
different moral situation."
The circumstances under which the
Israelis legally can torture a prisoner remain murky - the Supreme Court
later banned many of the practices permitted by the Landau commission. And
Israeli officials say that physical abuse is a last, desperate choice.
"Physical pressure, on the face of
it . . . is admitting that you lost the battle of minds with the suspect,
between your brain and his," said Ganor of the counterterrorism
policy institute. "In most cases, things can be achieved by just
using psychological measures."
Now, after the revelations from Iraq,
many experts are not so eager to adopt the morally ambiguous position that
"coercion" should be publicly prohibited but also quietly used.
"I think there's a popular
perception that the failure to use these techniques will deprive us of
certain information, and if we only used them, we would be better
off," said Smith of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
"It's a myth. Most of the people who argue that don't know what
they're talking about. They have some sort of Hollywood vision of what
productive interrogation takes time. It's prosaic. It's plodding. It's