- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

The hunger for intelligence among our military and law-enforcement communities is a good thing, and their over-anxious reaction to the supposed capture of one of al Qaeda's ruling council is entirely excusable. Over the past several days, there have been reports that Anas al-Liby, one of the FBI's 22 "Most Wanted Terrorists," had been captured in the Sudan. Al-Liby, and the high-ranking al Qaeda like him, can be the source of tremendously valuable information if we can get it out of them. But how do we do that?

Al-Liby is wanted by the United States for the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. During the embassy bombing trial last year in New York, L'Houssaine Kherchtou's testimony was key to the convictions of several of the terrorists responsible for killing 224 people at two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. According to Kherchtou's testimony, a Libyan named Anas al-Liby was a leader of the cell that planned and committed those atrocities. The Egyptians also want al-Liby for an attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak.

We now know that the man in custody in the Sudan is not al-Liby, but is one of the high-ranking al Qaeda members. He is now in Sudanese custody, and talks are under way to get him in our hands. What should we do if and when we get him?

In the past week, there have been reports that al Qaeda was again operating and was thought to be moving money in preparation for more attacks on America. Increased e-mail traffic among remaining al Qaeda members around the world suggests that the pace of their recovery, and probably their plans for more attacks, are accelerating. Surviving Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are shouting their thirst for revenge against America. The threat is there, and it is still serious.

As a high-ranking member of the al Qaeda "shura," or ruling council, al-Liby would have been a confidant of Osama bin Laden and knowledgeable of al Qaeda's plans and membership. When one of these people is finally captured alive, he will present the first opportunity to interrogate someone who may have knowledge of planned terrorist attacks, who is involved and when it will happen. Given their deep-seated hatred of us, it seems unlikely that any of these people will tell what he knows voluntarily. There is a mighty temptation to say we will get that information by no matter what means we need to use to get it. It's a temptation we have to resist.

If one of our allies gets him before we do, it's likely that their interrogation would be less delicate than ours would. But their ability to extract information using extreme measures is not something we should trust. Unless our people are conducting the interrogation, there is no way for us to determine the value of what is obtained. The interrogation should be in American custody. And it must begin as quickly as possible after the man is captured. What information he has, like any intelligence information, loses value with age. We need to know what he knows, and we need to know it right now.

The war has changed so much in all of us, but it still shocks me to find myself on Alan Dershowitz's left, on any subject. That's precisely where I am after his Jan. 22 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Harvard professor, whom no one can mistake for a conservative, has proposed torture for captured terrorist leaders. Mr. Dershowitz began his piece with a ritual condemnation of law-enforcement. He has, said the article, no doubt that American police would use torture to extract information from a suspect who knew about an imminent attack and refused to provide it to them.

Mr. Dershowitz, having assumed that torture would be used, then proposes that judges be given authority to issue "torture warrants." The police would have to be able to represent that there was an "absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it." Torquemada Dershowitz then defines the liberal view of "permissible" torture, saying that it would be limited to "nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life."

Why stop there? Why not thumbscrews, the lash and the hundred other ways we can inflict pain without killing? One reason, and one reason only. We are Americans, and we will not torture people, even to save lives. This is one of the things that distinguishes us from our enemy.

But this begs the question. If we have someone like Anas al-Liby, who may have potentially critical information that could save many lives, how do we get it? We need not resort to torture, and we can still compel the information without harming the suspect.

Recently, two prominent Washington physicians talked to me about scopalamine and nitrous oxide. Both have been in use for decades. They induce relaxation and a sense of calm. Neither will always be successful in compelling a man particularly one who has extensive training in resisting drugs to tell you his deepest secrets. But most of the time, given in sufficient doses, either should work. These drugs are quite safe. Scopalamine was, until about 20 years ago, used on delivering mothers to keep them sedated but still conscious during childbirth. Many dentists use nitrous oxide as a consciousness-maintaining drug for oral surgery.

If we have someone like al-Liby, we can give him a physical examination. A man of the age of most terrorists 17 to 40 can be dosed both heavily and safely with scopalamine unless he has a heart defect, which should be detectable by a standard electrocardiogram. The evidence we get from such a detainee will not be admissible against him in a civilian court. But if he is tried before a military commission, it would be usable and may be enough to send him to the gallows.

We just don't torture people. But we can drug these guys sufficiently to make them believe they are talking to God. Presumably, even terrorists wouldn't lie to Him. By so doing, the information we get may save lives, possibly hundreds of them.


Jed Babbin is a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.


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