Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Torture of Qahtani - Points to Consider

There is much comment throughout the blogosphere about Convening Authority of Military Commissions, Susan Crawford's conclusion that

the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a "life-threatening condition."
A much more extensive account of his interrogation was published in Time back in 2005.  Before commenting on this case, I believe these points should be kept in mind.

1. Qahtani was no mere suspect picked up on minimal evidence. Rather, the evidence is overwhelming that he was a direct participant in the 9/11 plot, and would have been the 20th hijacker. Even Judge Crawford agrees.

2. Qahtani was a possibly critical source of information in the aftermath of 9/11. Any judgment on how he was interrogated should be made with that in mind.

3. He was highly uncooperative while in custody, as the Time account illustrates.

4. Standard interrogation techniques were used first, then more coercive ones. According to Crawford, the overall long-term effect of the interrogation is what she considers torture -- not any particular individual techniques. That is an extremely subjective definition of torture. Using her definition, I could almost certainly make the case that a large percentage of our domestic prison population is being tortured.

5. The purpose of interrogation was to gain information needed to protect the country, not to convict Qahtani in court. The implications for later criminal prosecution were of far lesser concern than national security. They are now a problem, but protecting the U.S. outweighed those concerns at the time.

6. We will probably never know exactly how effective these techniques were and whether useful information was obtained -- unless we get specific examples that can be proven.  Those who supported their use will claim to have achieved results, those who opposed will say otherwise.

Was this a situation where the U.S. was justified in bending or possibly breaking its own laws in order to gain information vital to national security? I'm not sure. In my opinion this isn't a clearcut case like that of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a known leader of Al Qaeda. On the one hand the evidence is overwhelming that Qahtani was part of the 9/11 plot. But on the other he wasn't a leader, or a member of the Al Qaeda inner circle.  What kind of information would we expect a terrorist foot soldier to have? What were we looking to extract, and was harsh treatment that can be construed as torture the most effective way to get it? I doubt those questions can or will be answered.

My heart doesn't bleed for this terrorist and his suffering while in U.S. custody. In my opinion, he should have stood trial at a military tribunal, and if & when convicted as part of the 9/11 conspiracy, he should have been executed. But this whole situation appears to be yet another illustration of the incompetent, haphazard fashion in which the Bush administration has handled almost everything. If the administration believed Qahtani had critical, time-sensitive information worth torturing him for, then they should have decided immediately to authorize extreme measures. The fact that they took their time, and gradually ramped up the pressure, indicates that they were just frustrated and fishing for information, rather than acting on pressing national security concerns.

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