Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 9, 2004

Post-9/11, an uneasy sense of sanction for abuse

The 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 time."

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 "ticking-bomb" cases.

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 detainees.

"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 strong-arm techniques.

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 services."

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 ineffective.

"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 academic circles.

"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 human-rights groups.

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 happens.

"Actually, productive interrogation takes time. It's prosaic. It's plodding. It's boring." home page   
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