Breaking al-Qaida

To no one's surprise, captured members of the terror organization are proving close-mouthed. How far should the U.S. go to get them to talk?

Published October 23, 2002 7:11PM (EDT)

The journey of Ramzi Muhammad Abdullah bin al-Shibh began in chaos and fear when a squad of Pakistani rangers stormed his hideout in a fashionable Karachi suburb. Bullets flew, grenades exploded, one al-Qaida gunman even scrawled a paean to Allah in blood on the wall of a fifth-floor apartment. By the time the fighting ended, bin al-Shibh had been taken into custody.

From that moment on, the man believed to be a pivotal figure in the Sept. 11 attacks descended into one of the most secretive and controversial realms of the war on terrorism: the domain of detention and interrogation.

A photo of bin al-Shibh's arrest last month shows him surrounded by an entourage of stern soldiers, his hands cuffed behind his back, his eyes blindfolded with a swath of white cloth. Dressed in a dark T-shirt, the frail-framed, 30-year-old Yemeni national was quickly ushered to an undisclosed location, where, two weeks later, the State Department said, he began to provide the United States with "valuable information."

Bin al-Shibh's trajectory from combatant to captive to informant may seem surprising given his die-hard religious zealotry. But he is not the only member of al-Qaida who has begun to crack. Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking operative in captivity, has also shared bits of information about the terrorist organization since his capture this spring. So has Omar al-Faruq, al-Qaida's Southeast Asia point man, whose confessions three months after his arrest in June ominously portended the recent bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali.

How are such hardened militants made to reveal what they know? The classic interrogation scene in novels and movies features a harsh, hot light, a lone chair in a bare room, an ominous voice demanding again and again Tell us what you know. Resistance brings more severe measures -- drugs, brainwashing, torture.

Which, if any, of these techniques or others the United States is using in its quest to pry information from al-Qaida members is impossible to say. The Pentagon, CIA and FBI have been highly guarded about their interrogation procedures. In an interview with Salon, an FBI spokesperson would not even verify which of the three government agencies was involved in questioning the prisoners, or whether a joint interrogation command had been established to coordinate the activities. One thing U.S. officials have said, though, is that extracting information from al-Qaida captives has been tough. In their iron dedication to their cause, which has the status of jihad or holy war, al-Qaida prisoners have proven to be disciplined and highly resilient to questioning. "They know precisely what they are doing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this summer. "They are very well trained in interrogation techniques."

If the training and dedication of al-Qaida operatives are partly responsible for their silence, so may their interrogators' shortcomings. According to a new congressional intelligence report, the interrogation effort at Camp X-Ray on Guantánamo Bay in Cuba has been beset by a host of problems, such as inadequate training and a lack of linguistically competent interrogators. Moreover, outside experts note, the camp has failed to follow basic procedures like isolating prisoners.

With the Bali nightclub bombing and other deadly attacks this month being linked to al-Qaida, U.S. intelligence agencies are under even greater pressure to get results. And clearly, it seems, the fastest way may be to take a tougher stand in the interrogation chamber. Though no evidence suggests that the U.S. is directly engaging in torture, scattered reports corroborated by knowledgeable security experts suggest the U.S. has in some cases has helped steer captured combatants to third countries known for their brutal interrogation methods -- raising the specter of U.S. complicity in torture.

While such complicity would violate both U.S. and international law, some observers have begun to make a once taboo argument: America needs to get even tougher. To prevent a deadly attack on the scale of those on Sept. 11, they say, American investigators must use the most forceful methods available to them in the interrogation chamber -- including torture, if the circumstances dictate it. This view is openly espoused by only a few, but the fact that it is being discussed at all is significant.

Whatever the debate, one thing is certain: Since the last major allied offensive in Afghanistan ending in March, a fight that once took place in street skirmishes and mountain strongholds has shifted into the realm of psychology. Storming mental redoubts has become as critical as blasting through physical ones, if not more so.

One of the classic techniques used by captors to get their prisoner to talk is to subject him to isolation and disorientation. "When they took bin al-Shibh, they brought him to a place blindfolded so he had no idea where in the world he was," Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer who specialized in counter-terrorism, told Salon. "There was nothing recognizable in terms of his surroundings. He couldn't look out and see palm trees waving and feel the breeze and see the ocean lapping. They're depriving him of awareness of his surroundings, awareness of what's going on in the world, any access to news, for example. That was certainly the technique used with Abu Zubaydah, as well."

This is a decades-old strategy. It was articulated as far back as 1963, in a top-secret CIA manual on counterintelligence interrogation published under the codename KUBARK: "The effect of arrest and detention, and particularly of solitary confinement, is to deprive the subject of many or most of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile sensations to which he has grown accustomed." The manual, recently declassified, goes on to cite the work of John C. Lilly, a psychiatrist who studied the experiences of polar explorers and lone sailors. "The symptoms most commonly produced by isolation," Lilly found, "are superstition, intense love of any other living thing, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, hallucinations, and delusions." The manual notes that there is no single rule of design for interrogation rooms but that the decor should generally be sparse and free of distracting items such as telephones or computers.

Although officials familiar with the interrogation process say they do not expect a hardened militant like bin al-Shibh to develop "intense love" for his enemies, the hope is that by divorcing the prisoner from everything he knows, he will eventually become psychologically reliant on the interrogator. Experts say that after numerous days of solitary confinement, a person will experience a nearly irresistible need to communicate with another human being -- making isolation a key way to break a prisoner's lockjaw silence, one of the biggest barriers in an interrogation. If the atmosphere is right, says former CIA officer Art Hulnick, who interrogated North Korean defectors after the Korean war, "the subject suddenly finds that he is comfortable with you; he develops a certain kind of affinity for you, and he becomes dependent on you."

This can often mean beginning with a friendly gesture to develop the right rapport. But experts stress each case is different. Building dependency is only one aspect of a potentially three-pronged approach to breaking down an individual's resistance during a hostile interrogation. The psychiatric literature referenced in the 1963 CIA manual argues that most prisoners, while under physical or psychological stress, will respond by experiencing debility, dependency and dread, otherwise known as the "DDD syndrome." When cultivated to the appropriate level, the manual says, this syndrome can be effective in softening a subject up so that he or she is willing to share information. "If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him."

Debility, dependency and dread can be produced in a variety of ways, many short of torture. "The exploitation of the source's emotion can be either harsh or gentle in application (hand and body movements, actual physical contact such as a hand on the shoulder for reassurance, or even silence are all useful techniques that the interrogator may have to bring into play)," explains a declassified 1987 Army field manual. "The number of approach techniques is limited only by the interrogator's imagination and skill. Almost any ruse or deception is useable as long as the provisions of the Geneva Conventions are not violated."

The Bush administration, in insisting that captured al-Qaida operatives are not "prisoners of war," has tried to create for itself an escape hatch from the international law governing POW treatment. The Conventions state that a "prisoner of war" is required to tell his captors only his name, rank, military unit and serial number. "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure information from them of any kind, whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant disadvantageous treatment of any kind."

It's unlikely that U.S. intelligence officers are following those rules to the letter, but experts say al-Qaida combatants in U.S. custody probably aren't being tortured either. "No, they're not sticking bamboo shoots under their toenails, or anything like that," says Cannistraro, the former CIA officer. "But they are trying to play psychological games with them." These games can be as well known as the good-cop, bad-cop routine, and as unusual as asking an aggressive but nonsensical line of questioning to disorient the subject, or playing with the prisoner's sense of time by keeping him in rooms with clocks that give wildly different times. "They'll say, al-Qaida is finished, your boss is dead -- fairly typical stuff," said Cannistraro. "If you want to call it psychological coercion, that's about the extent of it."

Of course, at some point those techniques can cross that hazy threshold where psychological coercion ends and physical coercion begins. Prolonged isolation for the sake of getting someone to talk is, by definition, physical punishment. A CIA training manual used during the early 1980s  but officially repudiated in 1985 -- repeatedly advises against physical torture, but it recommends compelling an uncooperative prisoner "to maintain rigid positions such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods of time," because "pain which is being inflicted upon him from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance."

A commonly employed approach today appears to be sleep deprivation. Although it violates the letter of the Geneva Conventions, numerous press reports state that it is being used to break al-Qaida prisoners' will to resist. An unnamed U.S. counter-terrorism official interviewed by Time magazine, for instance, said that Omar al-Faruq, the Southeast Asia al-Qaida operative, was subjected to "three months of psychological interrogation tactics," which included isolation and sleep deprivation. Al-Faruq remained practically silent the entire time, until he finally started talking in September.

"There are many ways to keep a prisoner awake -- you can have him move from room to room, again and again, for example, or use continuous loud music," said Mike Ritz, a former Army interrogator, who said sleep deprivation was a common technique. Anyone who avoids sleep for two straight days will begin to experience a certain involuntary shift in thinking. MRI images show that the brain, in struggling to remain alert, will desperately transfer functions from one place to another: An area that may generally handle mathematics, for instance, will begin to process verbal abilities. But even these hapless synaptic swaps prove futile. There is a breakdown point no one can avoid. "In laboratory studies, every person who remains awake for more than 44 hours shows some significant impairment," a recent report conducted for the U.S. military observes. "This includes highly trained and motivated professionals."

The Pentagon has studied this phenomenon for the sake of better understanding how its own troops can survive high-stress situations. But the lessons are transferable. A soldier on the field and a prisoner in the interrogation room both get tired in the same way. Prolonged lack of sleep causes "a marked reduction in motivation," according to the scientific report, titled "Sustained Carrier Operations: Sleep Loss, Performance, and Fatigue Countermeasures": "Army field studies involving total sleep deprivation indicate that commanders often need to resort to persuasion to keep troops performing."

Before Sept. 11, investigators in Manchester, England, seized an al-Qaida operations manual. The manual's cover is innocuous: intertwining floral motifs envelop its entire front surface, to which a torn label is affixed. On the label, a handwritten message in Arabic warns: "It is forbidden to remove this from the house." The first page makes the intent of the book clear: An ink drawing shows a sword violently piercing a globe that prominently features Africa and the Middle East. The title reads, "Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants."

This 180-page document opens with a telling quote, one demonstrating the mindset that men like bin al-Shibh are likely to bring to questioning. "The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates," it begins. "But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon, and the machine-gun." The passage then goes on to observe that Islamic governments have never been established by peaceful means and that the only way to do so is "by pen and gun, by word and bullet, by tongue and teeth."

In clinical language, the manual sets out various methods of assassination, forgery and the cultivating of poisons. Chapter 17 provides a step-by-step tutorial on how to outsmart hostile interrogators. Captured al-Qaida members are told that the first order of business is to evaluate the environment and determine the nature of their interlocutors. The imprisoned fighter is commanded to recognize that there are fundamental differences between hostile interrogations and legal questioning, and knowing the psychological terrain is critical before devising the right strategy.

For most of the recently detained al-Qaida combatants, that terrain is not a matter for much confusion. They have been seized in the mountain battles or street gunfights that have unfolded across Afghanistan and Pakistan during the past year. They do not need to determine whether they are material witnesses or criminal suspects in, say, the police or FBI roundups that have marked previous terrorism investigations. They are prisoners of war, despite Washington's aversion to the term. Most have been corralled behind Camp X-Ray's razor-wire-tipped fencing; their interrogations occur in one of several windowless buildings constructed from panels of unvarnished wood, located just outside the compound. In high-profile situations such as Operation Enduring Freedom, al-Qaida militants are warned, "interrogation would be more severe." But the manual explains that severity is likely to come in phases. "In the beginning, the brother may not be treated harshly, but rather kindly. He may be offered a chair with a cup of tea, or a drink. Then he would be asked to recall information that is useful to the interrogators." This insight mirrors U.S. interrogation training. As Robert Newman, a former Marine who questioned Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf war, explains, different situations require different approaches, but the importance of building rapport at the outset cannot be underestimated: "Be his friend and show general concern for his well-being." The declassified CIA guidebook on interrogations also endorses this initial approach: "So simple a matter as greeting an interrogatee by his name at the opening of the session establishes in his mind the comforting awareness that he is considered a person, not a squeezable sponge."

But the lesson to captured Islamic brethren continues by pointing out that a lack of cooperation can quickly force the interview into a less friendly atmosphere. "If the brother refuses to offer any information and denies that he knows anything, he is then treated harshly," the manual explains. "He and his family may be cursed; he may be forced into submission by following orders such as: face the wall, don't talk, don't raise your voice. All of that is to frighten the brother. The brother should refuse to supply any information and deny his knowledge of the subject in question. Further, the brother should disobey the interrogator's orders as much as he can by raising his voice, cursing the interrogator back, and refusing to face the wall. The interrogator would resort to beating the brother in order to force him to obey. Thus, that attempt would fail."

Earning a beating may seem like a strange measure of success. But in the highly sensitive interplay of personalities and egos that make an interrogation, it can demonstrate that the prisoner is seizing control of the situation, said Ritz, who now instructs civilians in interrogation procedures at Team Delta, a private company. Army and intelligence training stress that the interrogator should never relinquish command of the interview; he should at all times prevent the prisoner from exploiting his emotions. "The interrogator should appear to be the one who controls all aspects of the interrogation to include the lighting, heating, and configuration of the interrogation room," a declassified Army field manual advises. Losing that control means losing the opportunity to obtain vital information. "It's a strange technique, but it kills a lot of valuable time," said Ritz. "If an interrogator loses his detachment, it almost certainly means you have to start all over again, usually with another officer."

Elsewhere, the al-Qaida manual warns that interrogators may plant "suspicion among the brothers" by playing them off each other. It prepares militants to gird against isolation: "Security may leave you for long periods of time without asking you any questions in order to break your will and determination." It recommends "patience, steadfastness, and silence about any information whatsoever. That is very difficult except for those who take refuge in Allah." It advises on how to deal with torture: "Pretend that the pain is severe by bending over and crying loudly." And it even advocates turning the tables on one's captors, if possible, by gleaning any worthwhile information from the situation: An interrogation can be "a major opportunity for the [Islamic] group as long as the brother is tactful, bright, and observant." In other words, just because you have been captured, that does not mean the fight is over; that does not mean you should succumb to hopelessness or resignation. Even in prison, resistance has a purpose.

"If Qaida operatives are being trained with manuals like the one obtained in England, that makes them a force to reckon with in the interrogation booth," says Ritz. Indeed, failures at Camp X-Ray have become so commonplace they have bestowed a certain irony to the compound's name. Throughout the year, military and intelligence officials, by their own admission, have had difficulty penetrating the minds of Afghan and Arab prisoners held at the 45-square-mile U.S. Caribbean base.

This summer, in a report accompanying the 2003 House Intelligence Authorization Act, members of the Intelligence Committee observed that Camp X-Ray's "interrogation efforts have been hampered by a lack of appropriate training, a dearth of language-skilled personnel, and a lack of depth and breadth of analytic expertise." The Senate's version of this report has yet to be released, but sources familiar with its contents say it will express similar concerns. Some outside analysts note that an additional problem is the overall structure of the compound, which doesn't keep prisoners segregated. As already noted, this breaks a cardinal rule of interrogation: isolating the subject. Al-Qaida training puts great emphasis on teamwork, a quality deemed "God's command" by initiates. Practically speaking, this means that combatants permitted contact with each other will most likely coordinate their stories. "They can reinforce each other," said Cannistraro. "I don't think that's worked out for the investigators very well."

Camp X-Ray officers still do not know whether members of an entire group of prisoners are Taliban or al-Qaida or belong to some other organization, Lt. Col. David Lepan, a Pentagon spokesman, told Salon. The lack of significant progress has caused some former intelligence and military officials to argue that unless intransigent combatants face "credible threats" -- an admittedly ambiguous expression -- they will never start sharing valuable information. "What do they have to gain by talking now? Nothing," said Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer who spent most of his 21 years at the agency investigating terrorism. "I mean, these people are smart enough to know that they're not going to cut a deal by admitting that they're members of al-Qaida. They know they'll be prosecuted whether they cooperate or not. It's better just to keep your mouth shut and say you're a simple aid worker in Pakistan."

Success in gaining information from high-level operatives held in isolation has been better than with the detainees at Camp X-Ray, although it is not clear by how much. For instance, Abu Zubaydah is said to have inadvertently provided interrogators with information about a key Sept. 11 planner, a Kuwaiti named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But that may have been something of an exception. When Zubaydah fingered Jose Padilla, the "Dirty Bomber," as one of al-Qaida's men in America, many terrorism experts suspected that was simply a ploy to distract investigators. "Jose Padilla is a throwaway," said Cannistraro. "He was not involved in any core al-Qaida operations or projects they felt a great deal of sensitivity about."

Other top al-Qaida captives also appear to be giving modified versions of what they know -- or, in some cases, what experts believe they should know. (Given the terrorist organization's loose structure, it is difficult to judge to what extent this is out of cunning or ignorance.) Omar al-Faruq, the top al-Qaida man in Southeast Asia, had warned investigators that attacks like the Bali bombing were in the making; meanwhile bin al-Shibh, during his interrogations, has given greater details about the Sept. 11 attacks, including the possibility that a fifth hijacking was planned for that day, according to the New York Times. But experts say those, too, are small victories. Although al-Faruq spoke of the possibility of an attack in Indonesia, he clearly did not give information specific enough to prevent the bombing, which killed nearly 200 people. Likewise, bin al-Shibh has provided "only fragmentary information" about last September's attacks and current al-Qaida activities, the Times said. From interrogations with John Walker Lindh, investigators already had suspected that al-Qaida had explored the possibility of hijacking a fifth plane.

"That's been the general approach senior operatives appear to be taking," said Cannistraro. "Eventually you seem cooperative, but you give your interrogators misleading information, you give them crumbs, basically throwaway information. You don't give away the inner secrets."

Not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, a man by the name of Mohammed Haydar Zammar boarded a plane in Germany for Morocco, where he was allegedly planning to divorce his wife. He was 41 years old, born in Syria, but a German citizen. He had woolly black hair and a prominent beard. In Germany, Zammar is said to have given fiery speeches advocating a holy war between Islam and the Western world. By last October, he had already trained in Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and was thought to be a key figure in the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, whose members included Sept. 11 hijackers Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. His story demonstrates what may be the most complicated and ethically fraught aspects of interrogations.

Zammar arrived in Morocco the day he left Germany. But shortly thereafter, he vanished. His family filed a missing-persons report. German intelligence officials said they could not locate him, and when they pressed the Moroccan government about his disappearance, they were told Zammar had gone on to Spain. But that lead appeared to be untrue. Spanish officials said they had no records of Zammar entering the country, and for months, he was thought missing. Those who knew his whereabouts kept the information under a heavy cloak of secrecy, until news of his capture quietly emerged this summer. An unnamed American official, speaking to the Washington Post, simply said: "Zammar is not walking the streets." Days later, German officials learned that Zammar had been arrested in Morocco and spirited to Syria, where long-standing charges were pending against him for his involvement in terrorist activities.

The extent of American participation in Zammar's capture and transport to Syria is unclear. Unlike other arrests of high-profile al-Qaida members, this had no discernible trace of U.S. involvement. According to various press reports, for instance, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, an al-Qaida operative with possible connections to Richard C. Reid (the "Shoe Bomber"), was arrested in Indonesia in January and delivered from Jakarta to Egypt by a Gulfstream jet that was registered in the United States. Similarly, Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, a Yemeni student with links to the attack on the USS Cole, was turned over from Pakistani intelligence agents to U.S. officials in Karachi last October, and like Madni, was flown from Pakistan to Jordan on a U.S.-registered airplane. Despite the registrations, it is unclear who owns the plane in either circumstance.

News reports of Zammar's arrest do not include those telling details. But his case, like the others', appears to reflect a process ominously known as "rendition," a term used by U.S. officials to describe the transportation of terrorist suspects to third countries for interrogation. Terrorism experts say there are important benefits to the procedure. A prisoner may be more inclined to talk to people of his own religion or ethnicity, rather than to nonbelievers or agents with a limited knowledge of his background. But the maneuver can also have more sinister implications. Sending a suspect to a third country is a way to get around U.S. laws that bar the use of physical coercion during questioning, and it gives the United States deniability.

Zammar's homeland, Syria, engages in "the use of torture in detention," according to the most recent State Department report on human rights in the country. "Former prisoners and detainees report that torture methods include administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextending the spine; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine," it says. "Although torture occurs in prisons, torture is most likely to occur while detainees are being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, and particularly while the authorities are attempting to extract a confession or information regarding an alleged crime or alleged accomplices."

This is precisely Zammar's predicament. "There is no cultural gap when you turn over a Syrian to the Syrian government," said Cannistraro. "But Syrians are not known for their genteel interrogation methods, either. I don't know if there have been Americans or Westerners present during Zammar's interrogations. Presumably they weren't because I am sure they were hostile. Syrians are pretty brutal, but they do get information." Since his capture, experts say Zammar has been an important source for corroborating the confessions of other captured terrorists. "Syria has provided actionable intelligence from interrogations of al-Qaida operatives held in Syria, most likely Zammar, that led to the disruption of at least one terrorist attack against U.S. military forces in the Gulf," Matthew A. Levitt, a terrorism analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told a House International Relations subcommittee last month.

It appears as though Syrian agents have already "broken" Zammar, who, as a well-trained al-Qaida operative, was probably prepared to deal with torture during an interrogation. But once a person is made to start talking, experts say, no matter what his level of training, it is difficult to return to a posture of resistance. Torture does not necessarily mean the constant application of pain; often a carefully targeted threat of injury is enough to remind the prisoner that there are dire consequences for remaining silent. As the al-Qaida manual warns, succumbing to torture just once can be the beginning of the end. The operative's "situation is just like someone who falls into a swamp: the more he tries to save himself, the deeper he sinks," it says.

Previous terrorism dragnets demonstrate the process of "rendition" -- and the application of coercive force -- at work in greater relief. One vivid example is the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, a co-conspirator of Ramzi Ahmed Youssef, who was convicted in a New York district court for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Murad had been detained in the Philippines. Prior to his transfer to the United States, Filipino agents interrogated him. In court papers, Murad said the agents burnt and suffocated him. Fragments of a tape recording made during that questioning, and played at the trial, were used to show how interrogators constricted his breathing (although it is hard to say exactly how), even as he was confessing. The transcript reads:

Interrogator: What is your plan in the Philippines?

Murad: I'm telling you the truth. I don't have any plans in the Philippines.

Interrogator: How about in, eh, the United States?

Murad: I have a lot of planning in the United States?

Interrogator: What -- what are your plans?

Murad: We are planning, I am planning to explode this airplane. I have planning of -- I just can't breathe, I can't breathe.

Interrogator: What -- what more? What is your plan?

More recently, there is the case of Mohammad Saddiq Odeh, an al-Qaida operative sentenced last year to life imprisonment in the United States for his involvement in the East Africa embassy bombings. The day the buildings were attacked, on Aug. 7, 1998, Odeh flew from Kenya to Pakistan. But on his arrival in Karachi, immigration officials immediately detained him and turned him over to Pakistani interrogators, who questioned him over a period of several days. Odeh submitted a court brief, claiming "he was not permitted to sleep for long periods during his interrogation, and was at times deprived of food and water." He said his interviewers threatened to sodomize him unless he confessed to certain information. During his trial, a video of the interrogation was submitted into evidence. "You must tell me something," a Pakistani interrogator commands. "Tell me, otherwise this will go on and on and on -- your ordeal -- and they will start pulling something different. They might even get your wife on, understand."

Ten days later, Odeh claims, this is precisely what happened -- with the help of the FBI. On Aug. 16, Pakistani intelligence officers blindfolded him and put him on a plane back to Kenya, where he was taken to the Criminal Investigation Division of the Kenyan police for interrogation. There, along with several U.S. and Kenyan authorities, he met FBI agent John Anticev. "We told him he had basically three options," Anticev later recalled during Odeh's trial: Odeh could remain silent; he could invoke his right to an attorney; or he could talk to Kenyan and American officials, without an attorney. Odeh made a counter-offer. He said he just wanted to deal with the FBI. "At that point," Anticev said, "we all left the room to discuss that. Remaining in the room with Mr. Odeh was a Kenyan official, and by the time I got out to the hallway, the Kenyan official came out and said he's agreed to talk to both of us, to both authorities."

During that brief time, Odeh says he was given a powerful incentive to change his mind: The Kenyan official had told him that if he did not cooperate, "they would take him to a forest and hang him upside down until he told them what they wanted to hear," his lawyers said in court filings. Not long after, Odeh's wife, who was several months pregnant, was brought down to the police department for questioning. Odeh later said that he could hear her being interrogated in a neighboring cell. He said he listened to Kenyan officials insult her and threaten to lock her up.

"One American agent told Mr. Odeh that he should cooperate so his family wouldn't be put in jeopardy," his lawyers claimed. As proof, they submitted into evidence a copy of an FBI note taken during the questioning. It read: "Was upset re. Wife/tell him we have wife in custody." The tactic appeared to have been effective. "Her incarceration offended traditional Islamic religious beliefs, and the authorities knew that," Odeh later complained. "Nevertheless, they subjected her to questioning by men and made her remove her veil. They used her to get to me in a way that was very dirty."

Dirty or no, some terrorism experts say the stakes are too high to allow committed enemies of the United States to withhold critical information. And that even though harsh coercive measures can elicit false information, if used properly, they argue, that information can provide critical pieces to the current counter-terrorism intelligence puzzle. "Generally speaking, Americans are not good at interrogation," said a former intelligence official with extensive experience in the Middle East. "We don't question prisoners the way a regime whose existence is at stake might. But to get the kind of information we need, we're going have to really put pressure on them. We're still playing by the rules. Putting pressure on the families -- as some of the people I've worked with have done -- can be extremely effective. Even for militant Islamists. These people are still very loyal to their families and their clans. In order to get to them, you need to embarrass them; you have to have serious threats."

Others have even suggested legalizing the use of physical coercion during interrogations by having the U.S. government issue "torture warrants" in circumstances of dire urgency -- such as the "ticking bomb" scenario, when police officers might want to harm one individual to save the lives of many. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has been advocating just this position in his recent book and in numerous media appearances. "We can't just close our eyes and pretend we live in a pure world," he said on CBS's "60 Minutes." He believes that because torture will inevitably be used in such circumstances, it is better to place legal controls on it rather than let it occur freely outside the boundaries of the law.

That, of course, raises a whole series of moral and practical questions. Foremost among them: Can the application of economic or physical pressure on families, or the controlled use of torture in the interrogation room, seriously undermine the fight against terrorism? "It gets very tricky," said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program. "There are people who say you shouldn't use torture because it's unreliable. That's an empirical, pragmatic argument. Torture may yield information that is good, or that isn't good. But, in that respect, it's a lot like any other tactic used in an investigation, which will turn up information that may or may not be good. There are other reasons to forgo torture. The United States is a nation of law, it is a nation of principles, it is a nation that should not stoop and descend and debase itself by simply picking up the techniques of lawless thugs and terrorists. Those principles have to apply not just in public speeches but also in the interrogation room. You need a bright line that can't be crossed. Torture can't be condoned. You have to start from that premise."

By Raffi Khatchadourian

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al-qaida Torture