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The Wall Street Journal

How Do Interrogators Make Terrorists Talk

March 4, 2003. Story by Jess Bravin and Gary Fields

Other than torture or truth serum, American authorities have an array of options in extracting information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Captured Saturday in Pakistan, Mr. Mohammed was flown Monday to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the typical first stop for prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. Mr. Mohammed, al Qaeda's alleged leader of terrorist operations against the U.S. and the suspected brains behind the 9/11 attacks, may be tried eventually, but Washington's first priority is collecting intelligence to prevent future attacks and capture Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders.

In criminal cases, investigators typically tempt their quarry to talk with promises of fairly obvious rewards -- say early freedom or improved conditions. But Mr. Mohammed is a self-avowed terrorist driven by ideology and is unlikely to ever taste freedom again. U.S. authorities have found that traditional interrogation techniques have been ineffective on such prisoners. "You don't deal with this guy the way we interrogate someone here," said a top federal law-enforcement official.

High-profile prisoners such as Mr. Mohammed generally are held by the Central Intelligence Agency and interrogated in a third country, possibly Jordan in this case. It's unclear exactly what rules the CIA follows in conducting interrogations, because the agency is closemouthed about such matters, other than denying that it uses truth serum or torture. But judging from methods military interrogators say they are allowed to employ under international humanitarian law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the CIA has plenty of options.

Military interrogators say their prisoners can be lied to, screamed at and shown falsified documents in the hopes they might unwittingly confirm certain pieces of information. Interrogators can also play on their prisoners' phobias, such as fear of rats or dogs, or disguise themselves as interrogators from a country known to use torture or threaten to send the prisoner to such a place. Prisoners can be stripped, forcibly shaved and deprived of religious items and toiletries.

The White House argues that al Qaeda prisoners are "unlawful combatants" and enjoy neither constitutional rights nor the protections of the Geneva Conventions, which govern treatment of enemy soldiers. Bush administration lawyers acknowledge only one legal restraint: the United Nations' Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the Senate ratified in 1994 after adding several reservations limiting its scope.

The treaty bars interrogators from inflicting "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" and prohibits transfer of prisoners to other countries that may practice torture. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification of torture," the treaty says in a provision that the U.N. Committee Against Torture said remained in force even after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The standard for any type of interrogation of somebody in American custody is to be humane and to follow all international laws and accords dealing with this type of subject," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday. "That is precisely what has been happening and exactly what will happen."

But because the treaty has no enforcement mechanism; so, as a practical matter, "you're just limited by your imagination," a U.S. law-enforcement official says. In other words, as long as the pain and suffering aren't "severe," it's permissible to use physical force and to cause "discomfort," as some U.S. interrogators euphemistically put it. Among the techniques: making captives wear black hoods, forcing them to stand in painful "stress positions" for a long time and subjecting them to interrogation sessions lasting as long as 20 hours.

U.S. officials overseeing interrogations of captured al Qaeda forces at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba can even authorize "a little bit of smacky-face," a U.S. intelligence official says. "Some al Qaeda just need some extra encouragement," the official says. 

"There's a reason why [Mr. Mohammed] isn't going to be near a place where he has Miranda rights or the equivalent of them," says the senior federal law-enforcer says. "He won't be someplace like Spain or Germany or France. We're not using this to prosecute him. This is for intelligence. God only knows what they're going to do with him. You go to some other country that'll let us pistol whip this guy.

"Initially, interrogators will aim to disorient Mr. Mohammed. "You deprive him of what he's used to and comfortable with," this official says. "You deprive him of his surroundings. You move him. In this instance, you do that geographically, physically and emotionally. You put him someplace he's unfamiliar with. You deprive him of food, water and sleep. You make morning night, and you make hot cold."

Authorities are hoping they'll get lucky. "He's a fanatic but he could be a big baby," the official says.

U.S. authorities have an additional inducement to make Mr. Mohammed talk, even if he shares the suicidal commitment of the Sept. 11 hijackers: The Americans have access to two of his elementary-school-age children, the top law-enforcement official says. The children were captured in a September raid that netted one of Mr. Mohammed's top comrades, Ramzi Binalshibh.

When interrogators finish with Mr. Mohammed, he is likely to face a U.S. military tribunal, but that will probably be years from now.

-- Zahid Hussain contributed to this article. 

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