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Media in Wartime: Military Tribunals and Torture

November 30, 2001

As law enforcement rounds up non-citizens, holds them in secrecy and moves toward implementing the secretive,expedient military tribunals, the US has begun to debate another method of pressing suspected terrorists: torture.

There haven’t yet been any presidential directives or pleas from the attorney general to allow such extreme measures.But some FBI investigators have been itching for heavier tools in their interrogations of alleged 9-11 materialwitnesses. As one experienced FBI agent told the Washington Post, "We are known for humanitarian treatment.So, basically, we are stuck. It could get to that spot where we could go to pressure . . . where we won’t have achoice, and we are probably getting there."

After FBI agents are said to have offered the traditional inducements to the "material witnesses" — reduced prisonsentences, money, relocation to the United States and new IDs for themselves and their families — if they cooperate.

A surprising number of criminal experts say it’s time to talk about letting interrogators inject key recalcitrantwitnesses with "truth serum." Extraditing them to countries where authorities have no qualms about subjectingsuspects to a ruthless third degree is another option.

And while torture likely will remain officially off-limits on U.S. soil, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz — oneof the country’s leading civil libertarians — suggests creating a mechanism where U.S. judges could approve domestic"torture warrants" if they’re convinced such tactics could thwart an imminent attack. In an article in the VillageVoice this week, Dershowitz argues eloquently against military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, but doesn’trule out torture as an option.

Reporting in national newspapers about the previously unthinkable debate about coercive techniques of interrogationoften centers on the reported silence of the men being held as material witnesses — and the country’s fear about newwaves of terrorist attacks.

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote a piece in the November 5 issue of Newsweek called "Time ToThink About Torture" which begins:

"In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubberhoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatestcrime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren’t talking at all. Couldn’t we at least subjectthem to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?"


  • Jonathan Alter, columnist for Newsweek.
  • Steve Rendell, senior analyst at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).

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