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Tortured Justice
Date: Thursday, November 17 2005

Tortured Justice

There are ugly ways to extract information from suspects. What are the legal limits?
By Dahlia Lithwick
Updated Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001, at 5:09 PM ET

The best strategy in fighting terrorism, some say, is to "disrupt" the groups and cells planning future missions. One way of doing that, already practiced by the United States, is to farm out torture assignments to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, where they have no compunctions about extracting information from sources with violence or by threatening their family members.

The fact that the United States avails itself of the fruits of foreign torture is legally and morally problematic. But the truth about torture is more troubling still. Although U.S. and international law prohibit the use of torture to obtain information, the United States has tortured suspected spies here at home and coached other nations on the best techniques for doing it too. What is the legality of the U.S. approach? Can it contract out its torturing to foreign nations? Can it torture suspects—even just a little—if they have information about imminent attacks or anthrax sources that could save thousands of American lives?

As a legal matter, the issue of "torture" is only invoked in U.S. courts after the fact, when: 1) the prosecution introduces evidence resulting from interrogations into evidence (as the now-convicted African embassy bombers did during their trial last year); or 2) the suspect sues later for civil rights violations (as Abner Louima did in 1997). Thus, the question of whether or not torture is "legal" is one issue. The answer is: It isn't. The more relevant question is whether U.S. courts would admit evidence procured via torture (it might) or prosecute an American for torture (it might).

There's no doubt that torturing terrorists and their associates for information works. In 1995, Philippine intelligence agents tortured Abdul Hakim Murad, whom they arrested after he blew up his apartment making bombs. The agents threw a chair at Murad's head, broke his ribs, forced water into his mouth, and put cigarettes out on his genitals, but Murad didn't talk until agents masquerading as the Mossad threatened to take him back to Israel for some real questioning. Murad named names. His confession included details of a plot to kill Pope John Paul II, as well as plots to crash 11 U.S. airliners into the ocean and to fly an airplane into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. His co-conspirator Ramzi Yousef was later convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Similarly unappealing methods helped the CIA uncover the millennium bomb plot of 1999, after al-Qaida terrorists were questioned in Egypt and Jordan.

[Update Oct. 23, 2001: In stating that the millennium bomb plotters were tortured prior to divulging the plot, I am guilty of over-reading an Oct. 15 article by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. Pincus writes, "The CIA worked with Jordanian, Egyptian, Canadian and Pakistani services, picking up terrorists, some associated with al Qaeda, and moving them to either Jordan or Egypt" and that information from those sources disrupted the bombings. While Pincus did not report, and we cannot know, whether those terrorists were tortured in Egypt and Jordan, he states two paragraphs down that many foreign countries use torture and threats to family members in interrogations. Egypt and Jordan are two of the best-known users of torture in interrogations. Nevertheless, the millennium terrorists questioned there in 1999 may well have been interrogated with full regard for their personal and constitutional rights.]

The CIA has always known that torture works. According to declassified CIA interrogation manuals, the CIA has taught others how it's done, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. The manuals refer to using "deprivation of sensory stimuli," "threats and fear," "food and sleep deprivation," and pain to extract information. The most famous case of CIA use of domestic torture was that of Yuri Nosenko, a former KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1964. Believing he was a Soviet spy, the CIA kept Nosenko in solitary confinement for more than three years in a 10-foot-square concrete cell. He was, for long periods of time, denied food, sunlight, reading materials, and human contact. He claims to have been given LSD. When he attempted to build toys out of lint, they were confiscated. The CIA freed Nosenko in 1967, finally concluding he was a bona fide defector after all. This episode and government inquiries into similar situations prompted the dismissal of many executives of the counterintelligence department in the 1970s.

Dahlia Lithwick is a Slate senior editor.

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