Is Torture a Tool in the War on Terror?

ByABC News
July 30, 2002, 7:10 PM

Aug. 13, 2002 — -- 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.