Is Torture a Tool in the War on Terror?

Beating. Asphyxiation. Electrocution. Starvation. Sexual violation.

Before Sept. 11, most people would have blanched at these and other forms of torture, and most still do. But after major intelligence failures allowed 19 men to cause the deaths of more than 3,000 people, and the suffering of untold others, attitudes have had reason to change.

Civil libertarians say the Bush administration is already using the Sept. 11 attacks as a pretext for infringing on some civil liberties.

Some terror suspects are being kept on foreign shores because of the latitude it provides U.S. investigators probing the al Qaeda terrorist network, ABCNEWS national security correspondent John McWethy reported in June. The prisoners are subject to the law of the land where they're detained, which could permit more severe treatment than would be allowed under U.S. law.

The U.S. government, while denying it is doing anything wrong in having prisoners held elsewhere, last month made a decision to abstain from the United Nations vote to strengthen the U.N. convention against torture.

Denmark, speaking on behalf of the European Union, accused the United States of intentionally stalling in order to kill efforts to strengthen the U.N. convention against torture.

U.S. officials countered that they were not promoting torture, and defended their absention by arguing the change would conflict with the U.S. Constitution. "The United States greatly regrets being put in the position of abstaining," U.S. Ambassador Sichan Siv said after the debate.

At a Pentagon news conference in January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions." In April, Rumsfeld again rebuffed allegations of torture in the case of an alleged al Qaeda leader being held at an undisclosed location, calling them "wrong and irresponsible."

"I saw a report that referred to a word I don't even want to use," Rumsfeld said, avoiding even using the word torture.

The United Kingdom was among the 35 of 53 countries that voted in favor of the change. Before the vote, MP Denis MacShane said his country "believes it would make an important contribution to preventing and eradicating torture."

But U.S. diplomats were also reportedly concerned the change would widen access to suspects in the war on terror, and weaken the efforts to prevent attacks. The strengthened convention could potentially invite foreign observers into American detention centers to check if detainees were being tortured.

Questions of Torture

U.S. officials have certainly taken into account, and sometimes, taken advantage of the more persuasive interrogation methods offered by countries with poor human rights records. Saudi national and alleged top al Qaeda official Abu Zubair was arrested in Morocco in June, but U.S. officials have been in no hurry to bring him to the United States, reported McWethy — in part because Moroccan authorities can use methods that would not be allowed under U.S. law.

When al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah was arrested in March, ABCNEWS Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas said U.S. officials had considered sending him to U.S. terror war allies Egypt or Jordan, which also have poor human rights records. Months after his arrest, Zubaydah's location remains undisclosed.

A number of Pakistani newspapers say he remains in Pakistan, where he was captured. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said his location would not be discussed for security reasons. And when asked by reporters about Zubaydah's condition and what has since been called the "T-word" in deference to the defense secretary's sensibilities, Rumsfeld said: "Believe me, reports to that effect are wrong, inaccurate, not happening and will not happen."

While Rumsfeld has commented on Zubaydah, U.S. officials have said little about other al Qaeda suspects, some of whom have been sent back to their homelands, but others who, like Zubair were arrested abroad and allegedly transferred to countries which have fewer constraints on their interrogation methods.

Mohammed Mansour Jabarah has pleaded guilty to conspiring against U.S. interests overseas, specifically against the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, but he is being held in Oman. Mohammad Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen allegedly connected to the 9/11 hijackers, was caught in Morocco in June, but is believed to have been transferred to Syria.

Calls to the State Department about these suspects were not returned. If it's hard to tell if the transfers of prisoners around the world actually occurred, activists say it's even harder to tell if they were done with assurances that the detainees would not be tortured.

The United States runs the danger of looking like it is acquiescing to these policies, said Tom Malinowski, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "There is a concern. You don't want to send mixed signals."

Losing Moral Ground

Experts also point out that the United States has long been the leader in promoting civil and human rights — and anything that erodes that image might hearten more oppressive regimes around the world and immunize them to American criticism.

Watchdog groups and activists from around the world say some regimes are already using the war on terror as an excuse to carry out repressive policies and crush internal dissent.

"The U.S. is losing its moral authority to criticize," said Alistair Hodgett, of Amnesty International. He said China, whose human rights record is abominable, quickly adopted the language of the war on terror to deal with its political opponents. "Their rhetoric shifted pretty quickly," he said.

Protesters in Israel said a similar change was under way there. "The soldiers are much more likely to take the attitude of 'We're fighting terror and whatever we do is acceptable,'" said Eric Laursen, of the protest group Direct Action for a Free Palestine.

Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization Against Torture, said tighter immigration controls as part of the war on terror may be leading to more people being tortured. "It's making it tougher for people to make claims they are political refugees," he said.

"It's a real dilemma," said Joe Montville, a former career diplomat with the State Department who has served in Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco — countries at the heart of the war on terror. As the battle continues, these are legitimate concerns that require attention, he said.

Could It Reach Home?

While a stir has been raised about how the war on terror is encouraging torture around the world, most people doubted it would affect conditions domestically.

Most U.S. officials recognize that torture is "not only murky and inappropriate, but not an effective law enforcement tool," said Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to trust information obtained through torture," he said. "People will talk, but they will say anything."

Kara Gotsch, of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said that while some Muslim prisoners in the United States have accused corrections officials of discrimination, she has not had any indication that the police have been abusive.

Bob Tuttle, a professor at The George Washington University Law School, said he hasn't seen much of a change. "I don't see any signs that people would consider torture to be no longer off limits," he said.

But Dr. Michael Popich, who teaches religion and ethics classes at Westminster College in Utah, said he has seen a slight change.

In the past year, "students seem a little less likely to condemn it outright," he said. "Since we were attacked by terrorists, they seem to have given up a kind of adamant stance against it," he said.

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll from November 2001 said roughly one-third of Americans would support government-sanctioned torture of terror suspects held in the United States or abroad.

Why It Matters

Professor Thomas Cushman, who teaches at Wellesley College in Massachusetts said it's not a surprise that the issue of torture has become more prominent these days.

"Wars on terrorism and torture tend to go together," he said, citing Israel's continuing struggle with the Palestinians. Israel has admitted to subjecting detainees to excruciatingly uncomfortable postures, covering their heads with filthy and malodorous sacks and depriving them of sleep.

But few would dispute the dangers of turning to torture. Cushman observed that the regimes best known for practicing torture, such as Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, have been short-lived. "It's a desperate move by a desperate government," he said.

Hodgett cited another pitfall concerning torture: It could spread from solely being used against potential terrorists, to the mainstream.

It happened in Britain's fight against terrorists from Northern Ireland, he said. Some of the techniques used by modern-day torturers — like the "helicopter treatment," where a blindfolded prisoner is pushed out of the vehicle only to discover he is just a few feet off the ground — were invented in this period, Hodgett said.

"Once you allow [torture], it becomes difficult to contain," Popich said. "Once you let the camel put the nose in the tent, pretty soon you'll have the whole camel in there."

While civil rights activists have raised the greatest alarm, it's a possibility that has been considered by others, as well.

"A part of it is inevitable," said Montville, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an international think tank. "The human instinct to survive physical assault [like Sept. 11] is much stronger than the one to preserve civil liberties."