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For those who feel the war on terrorism
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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

While we await the fate of Karl Rove, it's instructive to ponder the characterization he made of Democrats in a now-infamous speech a few weeks back. He lambasted "liberals" for supporting a law-enforcement approach to fighting terrorism. This "law enforcement" approach has been used to great effect in Spain. It is also (assuming from the news reports) being used in England. Could it help the U.S. in apprehending those who carry out terrorist acts? Here's a couple of questions-and-answers from the New Yorker's most recent Q & A section:

'Q: A surprising part of the story is the role of the F.B.I. in challenging the Pentagon. Can you talk about that a little? Specifically, it seems that there are two issues: on the one hand, some agents simply objected to the treatment they witnessed; on the other, they had a different approach to interrogation, based more on building rapport, and different goals.'

'A:The F.B.I. has had fierce fights with the Pentagon over the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo and elsewhere. The F.B.I., to begin with, is a law-enforcement agency, geared towards prosecuting cases in the U.S. courts. The Pentagon is more interested in gaining actionable intelligence than in bringing wrongdoers to justice. The F.B.I. requires its agents to read suspects their Miranda rights, and to question them in ways that are consonant with American law, so that when cases do get to trial they aren't thrown out. U.S. courts, for instance, would never allow confessions from suspects who have been coerced into implicating themselves. But as your question points out, the divide goes beyond just what the U.S. courts allow. The F.B.I., which has had years of experience questioning suspects, has found that non-coercive interrogation methods yield more reliable results. F.B.I. officials acknowledge that force may get someone to talk, but it won’t necessarily get them to tell the truth. Force often yields false confessions. One agent told me, "I'd confess to being the third gunman on the grassy knoll if you tortured me. But what good would that be? Not only am I giving you misleading information, you also haven't solved the crime."'

'Q:This raises the question of whether torture works. Is it a mistake to think that it does?'

'Many experts think so [emphasis mine]. The Israeli Supreme Court, for instance, banned the use of torture in interrogations in 1999, after finding that it resulted in too many false confessions and too much moral baggage. An interesting case study is discussed in this article, involving the alleged twentieth hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani. He was subjected to extremely harsh interrogation, which some would define as torture. In the end, we know he confessed that he was, as suspected, sent by Al Qaeda to assist in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But was this a triumph? Traditional non-coercive legal methods had already proven this to U.S. law-enforcement authorities. Qahtani was stopped in Orlando, Florida, by an alert immigration agent, who refused him entry based on doubts about his reason for entering the country. After he was later captured in Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantánamo, where he refused to give his name. A fingerprint check identified him, and a subsequent search of phone and parking records revealed that he was connected to Mohammed Atta. None of this required torture. It just required smart (and legal) police work. So, after months of extremely harsh treatment, Qahtani essentially confirmed what the government already knew about him. One of the sources I interviewed asked, given the international political outrage that Guantánamo has provoked, "Was it worth it?" It's a question that Congress and the public have not yet really stepped up to answer.' [source: The New Yorker]

I put the emphasis on the "Most experts think so" bit because a.) that's important to realize -- the folks whose job it is to get information are practically all in agreement that torture doesn't work, and b.) because the Bush Administration is, once again, showing its disdain for the opinions of experts. Both points are important, but the second one is part of a larger narrative -- the Bush Administration routinely ignores expert opinion. This willful ignorance is the reason why we won't win the "war on terrorism" under this administration. As I've argued in the past, fighting a war is a science (as is ending a war) and the constant disdain for, and fight against, science by those making the decisions bodes very poorly for any hope of gaining ground against extremists. Also, it's important to realize that it's not _our_ definition of torture that determines whether or not it's effective; if the person who's being interrogated feels they are being tortured then they will probably lie or provide a false confession.

Andrew 8:20 AM : |


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