Torture likely tool in anti-terror fight

Inhumane methods used to gain key information, say experts on topic

Bin Laden cautions followers

War On Terrorism

The World

October 10, 2001|By Michael James and Peter Hermann | Michael James and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Even as war unfolds in Afghanistan, the worldwide criminal investigation into the Sept. 11 terror roars on, with more than 150 suspects jailed in 30 countries. And for those with suspected links to Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader has an ominous prediction for their interrogations at the hands of foreign intelligence agents.

"There is intense torture," warns a terrorist training manual used by bin Laden followers. "Let no one think that such techniques are fabrications of our imagination, or that we copied them from spy stories. On the contrary, these are factual incidents."

The 180-page manual, presented as evidence this year in a federal trial, alludes to a chilling reality of the global investigation into the suicide assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Experts and analysts say that because information is key in the fight against terrorism, many governments inevitably use extreme and inhumane measures to get it.

Such concerns are relevant as government agents here and abroad undertake perhaps the largest criminal roundup in history. Yesterday, three Libyans and an Algerian were arrested in Dublin, Ireland, under that nation's anti-terror laws and were awaiting questioning.

Varying methods

Methods of interrogation vary from country to country, and what constitutes inhumanity in one place might be considered effectiveness in another. Philippine intelligence agents in Manila, for instance, credit their torture of a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case with providing information that foiled a terrorist plan to kill Pope John Paul II and crash 11 U.S. airliners into the ocean.

On the one hand is the question of individual human rights and dignity; on the other, a government's attempt to stop bombings and murder.

Torture is not sanctioned in the United States, though graphic accounts of police abusing suspects in custody regularly surface here - most famously the Abner Louima case in New York in 1997. Even the CIA, which has been accused of training Central American security forces in the use of pain during interrogations, says in its manuals that "there is no blanket authorization" for torture. But, in several of the countries that President Bush has urged to join the international coalition against terrorism, brutal interrogation methods are considered vital - even legal - ways to trace terror's roots.

"Extraordinary behavior is necessary under extraordinary circumstances," says David Powell, a professor of Russian studies at Wheaton College in Illinois who has lectured on national security at most of the country's war colleges.

"The Israelis, as well as the U.S. and the British, have prevented scores of terrorist acts, and at least some of that has come from impermissible methods. People that are interested in widespread mayhem cannot be treated with the same humane treatment as a soldier or even the standard criminal."

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have decried the use of torture and excessive coercion under any circumstances, and have recently warned nations not to become so obsessed with gaining information that they adopt interrogation methods that "are in stark contradiction to the basic values of a democratic state."

Expert interrogators also question the evidence or leads produced by such methods, arguing that brutal treatment is likely to produce false confessions and other misleading information.

But interrogators, particularly those overseas, often have a different view. Intelligence officers in some countries have gone so far as to recommend that the CIA and the FBI employ harsher tactics in interrogating suspects held in U.S. prisons. Among the bin Laden followers jailed here is Ramzi Yousef, convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, who reportedly has refused to speak since Sept. 11.

"It is very hard to interrogate anyone in a democratic society," said Gideon Ezra, who retired in 1995 as deputy head of the Shin Bet security service in Israel, long known for its severe and at times questionable methods of interrogation of Palestinian suspects. "The police shouldn't take the law into their own hands, but a terrorist should know that refusing to answer is not enough."

Ezra said U.S. national security chiefs should realize that the recent terrorist assaults in America are a sign of a new era - one that requires a rethinking of how information is gathered when possible time bombs are ticking. In the intelligence world, he said, the prevailing view is that the United States is not aggressive enough.

"Let's say that Mohamed Atta [one of the chief hijackers on Sept. 11] was interrogated by the U.S. two days before the crash under American law," Ezra said. "He wouldn't have given any information."

Criticism of Israelis

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