The Telegraph (England), Dec. 15, 2002 (Opinion)
By Alasdair Palmer
After the bombs in Bali and Kenya, and the attempt to use a missile to shoot down a passenger airliner, there is a growing sense that it is merely a matter of time before America suffers a new attack: one that could be even more destructive than what happened on September 11, 2001. Is there anything which can be done to prevent an impending catastrophe?
It seems that there is. Only last week, the Intelligence Committee of the US Congress concluded that, had the FBI and the CIA actually responded effectively and efficiently to the information in their possession, they could have prevented the suicide hijackings which led to the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the deaths of more than 3,000 people.
The Congressional Report does not provide much detail on what would be “effective” in forestalling the next terrorist outrage in America. But when I talked to several officers from both the CIA and FBI in New York and Washington last week, they were in no doubt about what they would have to do: they would have to torture people.
It is not just officers in the intelligence agencies who think this: senior lawyers working for the US government do so too. The unanimity in American law-enforcement circles is striking. Torture is no longer simply a topic for debate. The debate has been won. “After the next al-Qaeda outrage in the US, the pressure will be irresistible,” one federal prosecutor told me.
Most of us are so appalled by the whole idea of torture that we are inclined to claim that it does not work. Unfortunately it does – at least sometimes. In 1995 al-Qaeda planned to hijack 11 airliners flying out of the Philippines, with a total of 4,000 people aboard, and to crash them into the Pacific.
The Philippine intelligence agencies, suspecting a plot, arrested and tortured a man they thought was one of the terrorists. They broke most of his ribs, burned his genitals with cigarettes and poured water into his mouth until he couldn’t breathe. After 67 days, he came up with the information which enabled the Filipinos, together with the Americans – who were provided with the fruits of the interrogation – to frustrate the plot.
“In a sense, we already use torture anyway,” one CIA officer told me. “When we arrest a foreign national who we think has important information, we hand him over to a foreign government such as the Egyptians. Its police will arrest the suspect’s wife and children, put them at the other end of the same cell, and then produce a couple of pit bulls and say: ‘Talk, or we let these dogs go at your wife and child.’ That usually works.”
It seems to have worked, for instance, on Mahmud Abouhalima, an al-Qaeda member involved in the first plot to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Abouhalima unwisely fled to Egypt, where he was arrested. So was his mother. He was interrogated by the Egyptians and persuaded to name those involved in the plot. The CIA received a transcript.
Benefiting from others’ use of torture is morally different from doing it yourself – but not that different. All the same, the idea that torture could become a part of America’s justice system is profoundly shocking. Is it really possible to imagine FBI headquarters echoing with the screams of people having their teeth drilled without anaesthetic?
One senior FBI officer told me: “If I knew that the man in front of me had the critical information that would enable the US to prevent a catastrophic attack from taking place on its soil, I would torture him, and take the consequences. Wouldn’t you?”
“You can duck the question,” the FBI officer continued, “But we can’t. Our ability to protect you depends on how we answer it. We can’t rely on other countries’ doing it, because the one man who knows the secrets may be a US citizen who we pick up right here in the US.”
He pointed to the example of Zaccaria Moussaoui (a non-American), who was arrested in connection with the 9/11 attacks because the instructors at the flight school he had been attending said he had been asking some very odd questions. “Suppose we had got a warrant to look inside Moussaoui’s computer, and we’d found the evidence that he was plotting a terrible terrorist massacre. That is exactly the kind of situation we could be faced with in the future. What should we do?
“Moussaoui’s attitude to anyone who has interrogated him so far has been: ‘Screw you. I know my rights. There’s nothing you can do to me.’ That’s how they all are. If we had tortured Moussaoui before 9/11, we could have prevented that catastrophe. We have to face the truth: torture may be the only way to prevent the next one.”
The force of that argument explains why there are US lawyers who now advocate the introduction of “torture warrants”. The FBI would have to apply to the courts for them in the same way they obtain search warrants.
Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard and one of America’s most distinguished advocates of civil liberties, has come to the conclusion that judicial torture is not prohibited by the US Constitution. He argues that the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits self-incrimination, only means that statements elicited by torture could not be introduced as evidence against the tortured defendant. He argues that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”, is not violated by torture either: it applies only to punishment after an individual has been convicted.
It seems incredible that anyone should be considering whether or not the US Constitution is compatible with torture – yet this is the situation in which America finds itself. Al-Qaeda, having destroyed the World Trade Center, now seems poised to destroy the legal safeguards which used to be thought of as essential to America.
We in Britain cannot wrap ourselves in moral superiority and smugly observe the Americans’ dilemma: we face the same choice and our authorities are coming to the same conclusion. The difference is that our Government officials and security agencies won’t talk about it openly. If we torture people, we will do it without legal authorisation.