Politics & Policy

Terror Truth

An alternative to torture.

Among the horrors of which Saddam Hussein stands accused, torture is the easiest to understand and condemn. It is a violation of the Law of War, as the Fourth Geneva Convention makes clear. Last November the British government’s report, “Saddam Hussein: Crimes and Human Rights Abuses” documented the hundreds of reports that Saddam’s regime regularly tortures political prisoners as well as Kuwaitis captured during the first Gulf War, 600 of whom were never released. On Saturday, the Bush administration listed about a dozen of Saddam’s clique who — if taken alive — will be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture. As we stand on the brink of war to liberate Iraq, it is simply amazing that supposed deep thinkers from both the left and right are advocating the torture of captured terrorists. They are terribly wrong for moral and practical reasons. Our morality condemns torture. Moreover, their conclusion that torture is necessary is based on the false premise that we must choose between torture and remaining ignorant of the information terrorist prisoners may have.

When al Qaeda’s #3 man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured on March 1, initial reports of his interrogation said that Mohammed refused to talk and would only mutter Koranic phrases. Pat Buchanan rushed in headlong, writing that though “positive law prohibits it…the higher law, the moral law, the Natural [law] permits it in the extraordinary circumstances such as these.” Buchanan’s version of “Natural law” permits no distinction between President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan and using torture to extract information from Mohammed.

Buchanan’s column revived the debate launched last year by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. Under the dizzy Dershowitz theory, the Constitution and federal law should be changed to allow torture of terror suspects when authorized by a court approving a “torture warrant,” in the manner of a search warrant or a wiretap order. With judicial supervision, police and others could use non-lethal means to torture information out of Mohammad and his ilk. Fortunately, there is no appetite for this in America.

The Brit report labels torture a human rights abuse and a crime against humanity, which is just what the Geneva Conventions call it. At the foundation of the “Natural law” Buchanan is fond of invoking is one of the distinctions between Us and Them: we will fight and kill to defend our way of life. But in doing so we will not cross the line that separates Us from Them. We are Americans, the good guys. We don’t need to become something else to win this war.

All Buchanan and Dershowitz have done is propped up an elegantly dressed straw man on which they can use their thumbscrews. Consider both Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the newly captured Yasir al-Jazeeri, another high-ranking al Qaeda operative. Neither should be tortured, and not just for moral reasons. Torture is no foolproof method of extracting information from the unwilling. You are as likely to get Mohammed to confess to the Kennedy assassination as you are to get useful information from him under torture. People will say anything to stop the pain.

Faced with hard cases such as KSM, we have to face the fact that these people are likely to have specific operational information about terrorist attacks that may happen within hours or days of their capture. If we can get that information lives — maybe thousands of them — can be saved. We cannot abandon our morality in pursuit of that information. But we also can’t fight this war by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Captured al Qaeda suspects and other terrorists should be subjected to very intensive chemically assisted interrogation. So-called “truth serums” are not foolproof, and do not guarantee success. But chemically assisted interrogation can significantly increase the interrogator’s chance to get the facts without descending into barbarism. There are legitimate differences between the constitutional and legal limits we impose on police interrogating a suspected criminal for prosecution in a civilian court and the means interrogators use to get as much as they can — as quickly as they can — from Mohammed and his ilk. Those limits do not require us to forego chemically assisted interrogation.

Intelligence agencies and the military have been experimenting with so-called “truth drugs” since the Egyptians began making beer about 5,000 years ago. During World War II, Germany and Japan both used chemical interrogation with very mixed results. Today, there are several drugs that are more effective and safe than the ones used then.

The object of a chemically assisted interrogation is to release the cortical functions of the brain. Most of the drugs that would be used — sodium amatol and related drugs — are sedatives that have a general calming effect. So do barbiturates. Another group — valium and its progeny, including Versed — have essentially the same effect, but also induce short-term memory loss, so the subject won’t remember this morning what he told you last night. The beauty of these chemicals is that there is a minimal danger of allergic reaction, and they can be administered in relative safety to all but the most elderly or those with diabetes, or other conditions that can generally be detected by blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

If a suspect is being interrogated while under the influence of one of these drugs, it is possible to further boost the ability of the interrogator to succeed by administering an amphetamine. If administered properly, the sedative calms the suspect and breaks down resistance. The amphetamine can raise his anxiety level, causing him to blurt out what he might otherwise conceal even under sedation.

Foreign-born terrorists, whether captured here or abroad, are unlawful combatants under the Geneva Conventions and our Constitution. Any prosecution of them will be before military commissions under the president’s order, where the rules are different and evidence that no civilian court could consider will be admissible. There need be no concern that the information the terror suspects can only be extracted with those protections in mind. Terror suspects such as Mohammed and al-Jazeeri probably have a great deal of information in their heads. And that means that we should be using chemically assisted interrogation methods more often than not.

An editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post — as usual, referring to a “cascade of anonymous comments” complaining (and bragging) about rough handling of prisoners — demanded that the administration lift the cover of secrecy over the interrogation of terrorist prisoners. The Post, unfortunately, mixed the question of torture with legitimate interrogation methods such as sleep-deprivation and “shining bright lights” at suspects. (I suppose that means shielding them from television interviews.) The Post’s demand is only the first of many to come, both here and abroad. Our adversaries are already telling their recruits that we torture prisoners. Silence strengthens their propaganda.

The administration should announce a policy that authorizes chemically assisted interrogations of any suspects like Mohammed or al-Jazeeri. It should provide that those prisoners who are believed to be actively involved in any global terror organization, and who will not be subjected to civilian court jurisdiction should — as a matter of course — be subjected to medically supervised and chemically assisted interrogations. Before the drugs are administered, each prisoner should be examined medically. If the prisoner is found to be in good health, the interrogation should begin as soon as he can be brought to the interrogators.

If there was reason to believe that torture would always reveal the truth, and quickly, Buchanan and Dershowitz might have some scintilla of logic to support their argument. But it doesn’t, and neither does any other method of interrogation. The choice is not between torture and ignorance of what is in a terrorist’s mind. Being tough and aggressive doesn’t require Us to become Them. Handcuff him to a chair and swab his arm with alcohol. Don’t worry, fella. This won’t hurt a bit. And it just might work.

NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense in the first Bush administration, and is the author of the novel, Legacy of Valor. Babbin often appears as a war commentator on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.


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