Dominic Lawson: Gestapo tactics in freedom's name

Al-Qa'ida has caused US officials to behave like secret policemen in a two-bit dictatorship

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A mysterious multilingual gentleman of my acquaintance has been employed by a European government to interrogate its captured al-Qa'ida suspects. Naturally I wanted to hear all about it. He expressed a professional's scorn for the methods apparently used by some of his colleagues in other parts of the world. Torture, he told me, was completely inappropriate. First of all, he said, it attracted exactly the wrong sort of people into the business: sadists, for want of a better word. Second, he explained, it was a most inefficient way of getting at the truth. "You would be surprised," he added, "how much information you can get from someone who might seem very tough, just by promising to get him a television for his cell". Could he describe any other tricks of the trade? He could. "If you don't heat their cells at night, that also helps. Someone from a warm climate is quite sensitive to such things."

There we have it - the famous slippery slope that leads all the way from "mild encouragement" to acts liable to indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. President George Bush has now woken up to the fact that he may find himself in the dock previously occupied by the late Slobodan Milosevic. Six days ago he laid before Congress a bill which, among other things, would grant retrospective legal immunity to any US government officials who had authorised torture in the five years since al-Qa'ida demolished the Twin Towers.

Now here's the funny thing: President Bush simultaneously insists that his administration has neither committed acts of torture "nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture". His concern, it seems, is just that there might be a misunderstanding. Last Wednesday the President, speaking from the White House, insisted that the methods now practised by the CIA on captured al-Qa'ida personnel were neither standard forms of interrogation nor torture, but "an alternative set of procedures designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the methods extensively and determined them to be lawful." This would be the now notorious memorandum by Jay Bybee, who as assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel at the US Justice Department, wrote an opinion at the request of the CIA, which wanted guarantees that its interrogation methods were not in breach of either international or national law. Bybee was able to reassure the CIA, and the President. He did so by arguing that interrogation methods amount to torture only if "the physical pain is of an intensity which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure". This was a novel definition. Pain, after all, is a subjective experience. What might be bearable to one man would be unendurable torture to another. How would a lawyer, mounting a case that his client had been tortured, demonstrate that the plaintiff had experienced "pain of an intensity which accompanies ... death or organ failure"?

Most of us, if asked to imagine torture, do not think of the pain itself, but of the methods used. Bybee, throughout a 50-page-long opinion, does not address himself at all to that vital question. As a result of interviews given by former CIA officers, we know, for example, that the practice of "waterboarding" has become commonplace in the extraction of confessions. This is not a new idea: something very similar was used by the Gestapo, and probably long before that. The sufferer is submerged in water up until the point when he is convinced that he will drown, and then revived. It can be repeated, but the experience is so horrific that the victim very rarely requires a second offer to talk. In his remarks last week on the benefits of the "alternative set of procedures", Bush said: "I cannot describe the specific methods used - I think you understand why - if I did it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning." I think we understand another reason why. Most dispassionate observers would immediately say: But isn't that torture?

President Bush was not all evasion, however. He attempted a remarkably detailed exposition of how "alternative procedures" had helped to prevent terrorist attacks: "Within months of September 11, 2001, we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that he was a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. He was defiant and evasive. During questioning, he at first disclosed what he thought was nominal information - and then stopped all co-operation. In fact the nominal information he gave us turned out to be quite important. For example, he disclosed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - or KSM- was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and used the alias 'Muktar.' This was a vital piece of the puzzle that helped us pursue KSM. Abu Zubaydah also provided information that helped stop a terrorist attack being planned for inside the US - an attack of which we had no previous information ... and provided information on the operatives and their location. Based on his information, the operatives were detained, one while travelling to the US."

What does this actually reveal? That one of Bin Laden's closest associates, far from being "defiant and evasive", had unhesitatingly disclosed his most valuable information. He may well have given further details after being subjected to "alternative procedures". But there is nothing other than the CIA's opinion - passed on to the President - to justify the view that such methods were essential. The FBI, for example, does not agree at all. Yesterday The New York Times published an extraordinary article, apparently based on interviews with the FBI men involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, which is dramatically at odds with President Bush's account.

In essence, the FBI insists that Zubaydah was more forthcoming under "normal" interrogation methods, and that if medics hadn't intervened to insist that Zubaydah got urgent medical attention, he would probably have died - which would hardly have been a brilliant piece of intelligence gathering.

So, even on the example hand-picked by the President, the case for torture - let's not beat around this particular Bush any longer - is not made.

Meanwhile America is inevitably tainted - and Britain by association - with the unanswerable charge that it has used the tactics of the Gestapo in the name of freedom. It's not the suffering of a man like Abu Zubaydah that shocks me, but the idea that his organisation has caused the officials of a great nation to behave like secret policemen in a two-bit dictatorship. Of course that does not mean liberal democracy is the sham Bin Laden says it is; but to prove that it isn't, we may yet witness the trial of George Bush.

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