FBI Eyes Torture
October 29, 2001
by Alexander Cockburn
"FBI and Justice Department investigators are increasingly frustrated by the
silence of jailed suspected associates of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda
network, and some are beginning to that say that traditional civil liberties
may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept.
11 attacks and terrorist plans."
Thus began a piece by Walter Pincus on page 6 of The Washington Post on
Sunday, and if you suspect that this is the overture to an argument for
torture, you are right. The FBI interrogators have been getting nowhere with
the four key suspects, held in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center.
None of these men have talked, and Pincus quotes an FBI man involved in the
interrogation as saying that "it could get to that spot where we could go to
pressure...where we won't have a choice, and we are probably getting there."
Pincus reports that "among the alternative strategies under discussion are
using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by
Israeli interrogators, to extract information. Another idea is extraditing
the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes employ
threats to family members or resort to torture."
Some FBI interrogators are thinking longingly of drugs like the so-called
"truth serum," sodium pentothal; others the "pressure tactics," i.e.,
straightforward tortures, used by Shin Bet in Israel, banned after savage
public debate a few years ago, which included sensory deprivation (an old
favorite of British interrogators in Northern Ireland), plus many agonizing
physical torments. Another idea is to send the suspects to other countries
for torture by seasoned experts. Israel is not mentioned; nor are the
British. Extradition of Moussaoui to France or Morocco is apparently a
CounterPunch was astounded to find David Cole, noted liberal professor at
Georgetown University Law Center, being quoted by Pincus as saying that "the
use of force to extract information could happen" in cases where
investigators believe suspects have information on an upcoming attack. "If
there is a ticking bomb, it is not an easy issue, it's tough," he said. Of
course it's tough. As Cole surely knows, the "ticking bomb" rationale has
been used by Israel's torture lobby for years, long after it had become
clear that it had simply become a routine way of dealing with suspects.
Right now the disposition of the FBI, intent on interrogating every Arab
American male (some 200,000) in this country, is doubtless to assume that
they might have knowledge of a ticking bomb.
The FBI claims it is hampered by its present codes of gentility. If so,
there's no need to eye Morocco or France as subcontracting torturers. As a
practical matter torture is far from unknown in the interrogation rooms of
U.S. law enforcement, with Abner Louima the best-known recent example.
The most infamous disclosure of consistent torture by a police department in
recent years concerned cops in Chicago in the mid-70s through early 80s who
used electroshock, oxygen deprivation, hanging on hooks, the bastinado and
beatings of the testicles. The torturers were white and their victims black
or brown. A prisoner in California's Pelican Bay State Prison was thrown
into boiling water. Others get 50,000-volt shocks from stun guns. Many
states have so-called "secure housing units" where prisoners are kept in
solitary in tiny concrete cells for years on end, many of them going mad in
the process. Amnesty International has denounced U.S. police forces for "a
pattern of unchecked excessive force amounting to torture."
Last year the UN delivered a severe public rebuke to the United States for
its record on preventing torture and degrading punishment. A 10-strong panel
of experts highlighted what it said were Washington's breaches of the
agreement ratified by the United States in 1994. The UN Committee Against
Torture, which monitors international compliance with the UN Convention
Against Torture, has called for the abolition of electric-shock stun belts
(1000 in use in the U.S.) and restraint chairs on prisoners, as well as an
end to holding children in adult jails. It also said female detainees are
"very often held in humiliating and degrading circumstances" and expressed
concern over alleged cases of sexual assault by police and prison officers.
The panel criticized the excessively harsh regime in maximum security
prisons, the use of chain gangs in which prisoners perform manual labor
while shackled together, and the number of cases of police brutality against
So far as rape is concerned, because of the rape factories more
conventionally known as the U.S. prison system, there are estimates that
twice as many men as women are raped in the U.S. each year. A Human Rights
Watch report in April of this year cited a December 2000 Prison Journal
study based on a survey of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four
states. The results showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at
least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being
incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facilities. A
1996 study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22
percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to
have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, more
than 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once.
Extrapolating these findings to the national level gives a total of at least
140,000 inmates who have been raped.
Since its inception the CIA has taken a keen interest in torture, avidly
studying Nazi techniques and protecting their exponents such as Klaus
Barbie. The FBI could ship the four key suspects to plenty of countries
taught torture by CIA technicians, including El Salvador. Robert Fisk
reported in the London Independent in 1998 that after the 1979 revolution
Iranians found a CIA film made for the SAVAK, the Shah's political police,
on how to torture women. William Blum, whose Rogue State (Common Courage,
2000) gives a useful overview of the United States' relationship to torture,
cites a 1970 story in Brazil's extremely respectable Jornal do Brasil,
quoting the former Urugayan chief of police intelligence, Alejandro Otero,
as saying that U.S. advisers, particularly Dan Mitrione, had instituted
torture in Uruguay on a routine basis, with scientific refinement in
technique (such as the precise upper limits of electric voltage before death
intervened) and psychological pressure, such as a tape in the next room of
women and children screaming, telling the prisoner that his family was being
The CIA's official line is that torture is wrong and is ineffective. It is
indeed wrong. On countless occasions it has been appallingly effective.
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