Weapon against terror: rule of law

Our view: Beatings and torture aren't the best way to get terrorist suspects to talk

February 05, 2010

Here's an alternative for conservative hard-liners who insist the only way to get actionable intelligence out of terrorist suspects is to beat, torture and starve them into submission: Fly in their families and get them to persuade reluctant detainees to cooperate.

That's reportedly what the Obama administration did with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber who allegedly tried to blow up an international flight over Detroit on Christmas Day. After being confronted by his mom, dad and a bevy of kinfolk, the 23-year-old would-be mass murderer capitulated and started telling interrogators things they wanted to know.

White House critics had been complaining for weeks that the administration's decision to try Mr. Abdulmutallab in civilian court, to read him his Miranda rights and provide him a lawyer was a typically soft-hearted liberal capitulation to terrorism. Once Mr. Abdulmutallab was read his rights, they claimed, he stopped cooperating and robbed the U.S. of any chance of gaining useful intelligence from him that could be used to disrupt other plots.

Apparently not so. News reports this week say Mr. Abdulmutallab has resumed cooperating with authorities, in part because his interrogators worked hard to establish a psychological rapport with him and in part because they had the good sense to enlist his family in efforts to convince him to talk. Mr. Abdulmutallab's father, a wealthy banker in Nigeria, had contacted the American embassy there last year to warn officials his son was drifting dangerously into radicalism. No doubt the father's presence here helped persuade the young man, described as lonely, isolated and deeply insecure, to value his family ties over those to al-Qaeda.

Since then, Mr. Abdulmutallab reportedly has identified his handlers in Yemen and others involved in the plot, as well as provided information that led to the arrest last week of 10 people linked to a terrorist cell in Malaysia. That's exactly the kind of actionable intelligence officials need in order to save American lives.

But would Mr. Abdulmutallab's parents have been so willing to help if the United States had thrown their son into Guantanamo and commenced waterboarding him? Probably not.

What this case suggests to us is that adherence to the rule of law - and the humane treatment of terrorist suspects - isn't just some unnecessary handicap but rather a hugely important weapon in our efforts to fight terrorism.

No doubt there will be some cases where the approach taken with Mr. Abdulmutallab doesn't work. Yet the asymmetrical conflict in which we find ourselves cannot be won through our military efforts alone; it also requires the help of people around the globe who conclude that our way is better than the terrorists.'

Our handling of Mr. Abdulmutallab is providing us both the intelligence we need to hunt down terror cells and the good will necessary to eliminate the attitudes that make terrorism possible in the first place. It doesn't guarantee that we won't be attacked again, but our old approach didn't either.

Readers respond
While prosecution in a civilian court may be right for Abdulmutallab, I consider the impending prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court an inappropriate outrage. One size does not fit all when it comes to trying and punishing these terrorists.

It is naive to believe we will earn brownie points with our enemies by adhering to the rule of law. By assuming that the terrorists are rational thinkers, with legitimate grouses, who can be placated by our own above-board behavior, we'll shoot ourselves in the foot.

We're not the cause of the terrorism that threatens the world, and bending over backward to earn the good will of our implacable and fanatical enemies won't stop them.

Caravan


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