The U.S. struggles to draw the line on interrogation
By Douglas Birch in the Baltimore Sun
Last year on an Afghan mountainside near the Pakistan border, a group of U.S. paratroopers on patrol spotted a 14-year-old hiding a cache of weapons and explosives. In the presence of a Sun reporter, they forced the boy to kneel on the rocky ground and put all his weight on his knees for an hour while heavily armed soldiers angrily questioned him.
Several times, the boy grimaced from the pain, closed his eyes and tottered, looking as though he were ready to faint. But he never admitted hiding weapons, even as soldiers scouring nearby caves stacked rockets, rifles and thousands of bullets in the dust nearby.
The weapons could have been used in deadly attacks. But the paratroopers were clearly uneasy about inflicting pain to leverage information, and – although they threatened to arrest their suspect – finally released the teenager with a warning. He was, as one said, “just a boy.”
The incident illustrates the questions the United States has been facing since the Sept. 11 attacks: How much pain and suffering should American forces use in trying to extract information from suspected terrorists? When does physical and psychological pressure become cruelty, degradation and torture?
Thousands have been imprisoned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and in secret facilities around the world. Americans or foreigners working on our behalf have used isolation, stress, fear and pain during interrogations – to the point, critics say, of torture, which is outlawed by international law.
It’s hard to say what has been accomplished by these techniques: The United States has deliberately cloaked the detention of most terror suspects behind a veil of secrecy and ambiguity.
But what some are calling America’s gulag has produced outrage from enemies and allies around the globe. More important, perhaps, the practice has divided and disturbed Americans at home.
America is not so much a nation as a collection of nations. What unites us is not a common ethnic, racial or religious heritage but the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy.
Other countries may feel justified in using torture, as a matter of self-preservation. But for the United States, means and ends form a more complicated equation. We are what we believe. And we trample on our beliefs at our peril.
“It’s not about them, it’s about us,” said Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war who was tortured by the North Vietnamese. “This battle we’re in is about the things we stand for and believe in and practice. And that is an observance of human rights no matter how terrible our adversaries may be.”
McCain spent weeks pushing the White House to accept a ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of terror suspects held in the U.S. or abroad, and finally succeeded Thursday.
The agreement, President Bush said, made it “clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the International Convention on Torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.”
The deal was struck after McCain agreed to give CIA interrogators the right – already extended to members of the U.S. military – to defend themselves against charges they tortured or abused detainees by arguing that they were following a lawful order. Vice President Dick Cheney had insisted on providing additional protection for the CIA.
U.S. law, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, already ban torture, defined in the latter document as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” The United Nations agreement and others also prohibit lesser acts of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” for prisoners.
But after Sept. 11, Bush administration officials sifted through the seemingly plain language of these laws – focusing on words like “torture,” “severe,” “cruel,” and “degrading” – and found a lot of elasticity and ambiguity.
In the summer of 2002, Justice Department lawyers drafted a memo that, essentially, said the United States had the right to use any interrogation technique as long as it doesn’t produce the kind of pain a person might feel when suffering organ failure or death.
According to government reports and news accounts, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have sometimes resorted to beatings, suffocation, sleep deprivation, electric shocks and the use of lunging dogs while questioning prisoners.
The United States has also created a network of secret prisons in Thailand and Eastern Europe, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest reported. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and others say the United States and Britain use information gathered through torture in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and many other places.
Britain’s highest court ruled this month that information obtained through torture could not be used against 10 criminal defendants suspected of conspiring to commit terror.
A lawyer for the men – who are from Algeria, Jordan and Libya – told reporters she suspected, but could not prove, that the secret evidence against her clients was “a cocktail” gathered from questioning of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
These reports and practices have disturbed many Americans – among them, McCain. Several weeks ago he sought to strengthen the laws against abusive interrogations by tying language to the defense bill that would bar techniques not permitted by the Army’s field manual.
President Bush threatened to veto the $453 billion spending bill rather than accept new restrictions on interrogation.
But the Republican-controlled Congress rebuked him. The Senate voted, 90-9, in favor of the amendment. The House on Wednesday endorsed it as well, 308-122.
Foes of aggressive interrogation methods say that information obtained by inflicting severe pain is generally worthless, because people will say anything under duress.
Physical assaults, they say, often only stiffen resistance to cooperation. Mistreatment of suspects from the Middle East, they say, is partly to blame for alienating and radicalizing the Muslim world.
The Bush administration has sent mixed signals on the issue. Last month the president stated flatly: “We don’t torture.” But about the same time, Cheney sought an exemption for employees of the CIA from McCain’s amendment prohibiting the abuse of prisoners during questioning.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 7, said the United States did not use cruel, inhuman or degrading interrogation methods either at home or abroad, some believed it signaled a change in U.S. policy.
Others, though, remained skeptical.
According to The New Yorker and other publications, one technique used on detainees has been “waterboarding,” where suspects are strapped to an inclined board, head tilted down, their faces wrapped with cellophane, and water poured over them. The practice creates the sensation of drowning.
Yet President Bush, critics pointed out, continued to claim that the U.S. did not engage in torture.
“If the administration can’t recognize that as torture, then we have a lot of concern with them saying, ‘We have complied with the law,'” said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for domestic human rights and international justice at Amnesty International.
Those who defend aggressive questioning say that it has provided critical intelligence in the war on terror. Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond, of the Senate Intelligence Committee told Newsweek that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, divulged plans for a second wave of terror attacks because of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Probably the most influential figure arguing on behalf of the use of torture is conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer.
Using extreme interrogation techniques is not only permissible, he wrote in a Dec. 5 article in The Weekly Standard, but obligatory in two cases: that of a “ticking time bomb” – a suspect with direct knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack – and what he calls the “high-value suspect with slow-fuse information.”
There should, he wrote, be no limits placed on the tactics investigators use while questioning a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack. “Nothing rationally related to getting accurate information would be ruled out,” he said.
But Krauthammer said that his rules would apply only in the rare case of a captured top-level al-Qaida prisoner, or a detainee with critical knowledge of an imminent attack. And, he wrote, such extreme measures should only be applied with the direct approval of the president.
American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are far more likely to encounter cases like that of the 14-year-old Afghan boy, where it is far less clear whether the detainee represents a serious threat to anyone.
Even creating a cookbook of interrogation techniques, as the Army has reportedly attempted, may do little to settle the issue of what is permissible and what isn’t.
The difference between questioning and torture, those who have studied the issue say, can depend as much on the person being interrogated as the methods used.
Pilot Bruce Olmstead and navigator John McKone were flying with four other crewmen aboard a U.S. reconnaissance plane when they were shot down by the Soviets over the Barents Sea north of Murmansk in 1960.
Olmstead and McKone survived, although the others did not. Both were picked up by fishermen and locked up in detention cells on the fourth floor of the Lubyanka, the KGB’s infamous headquarters a few blocks from Red Square.
Olmstead, now retired and living in Annapolis, broke his back ejecting from the plane. But his captors still held him in a cell, kept him strapped to a steel table, and subjected him to around-the-clock interrogations. Even when he wasn’t being questioned, he was forced to stay awake by the light from a 300-watt bulb that burned on the ceiling of his cell 24 hours a day.
Fed with standard, meager Lubyanka fare – macaroni spiced with bits of metal and stones; dishwater borsch; a leaf of cabbage – Olmstead’s weight dropped from 200 lbs. to 117 lbs. during his 208 days in solitary confinement.
But Olmstead says he doesn’t think his treatment qualified as torture, or even cruelty.
“Their responsibility was to keep us alive, and they did,” he said. “And to give us relatively good medical care. I didn’t expect them to send me back to Hopkins to get my back fixed, for Christ’s sake. I had expected to be shot. So when you expect the worst, and you don’t get it, it seems like it’s not so bad.”
Olmstead distinguishes between aggressive interrogation for a purpose and what he calls “bullyism,” the needlessly cruel treatment of captives.
“Interrogation techniques when employed by professionals who are well-trained and basically moral people are perfectly all right, as far as I’m concerned, on either side,” he said. “It’s part of fighting a war, believe it or not.”
McKone was held in a cell a few doors away from Olmstead. The grueling regimen was similar for both men, except Olmstead had a broken back. “I think Bruce was treated badly,” said McKone, who lives in Virginia.
But McKone agreed that defining torture and abuse is difficult, because different people can respond in different ways to the same techniques.
“For one person, being in solitary confinement as long as we were could certainly be one type of torture,” McKone said. “For another, it could be like water running off a duck’s back.”
In the case of the two American fliers, the Soviets’ well-polished interrogation techniques — practiced on millions of Soviet citizens poured into the gulag of slave labor camps – proved futile.
Both were released after negotiations between the Kremlin and the White House. Both emerged haggard and shaken, but unbowed.
In their case, at least, harsh interrogation produced nothing. They spilled no secrets. They refused to confess.