Can torture be justified?

At hearings Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will question top Army officers on interrogation of prisoners in Iraq.

Shortly after the Taliban were routed in Afghanistan, President Bush warned of the major danger now facing the United States: "Shadowy terrorist networks."

Speaking to newly minted officers at West Point, some of them headed for combat in Iraq, their commander in chief said they must "take the battle to the enemy ... disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

More than ever, disrupting plans and confronting threats takes good military intelligence - much of it from captured sources. But reported abuses in US-run prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, focus attention on how harshly suspected enemies are treated in the process of finding out what they know.

Use of torture (an imprecise term for extreme physical and mental duress) raises two fundamental questions: Does it work? That is, does it produce the "actionable intelligence" that might save lives on the battlefield or at home? And can it be justified on moral and ethical grounds?

Such questions will be the backdrop for a hastily called Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday featuring top Army officers responsible for prisoner treatment in Iraq: Gen. John Abizaid, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller.

Harsh treatment of wartime captives - whether it comes as pain, humiliation, sexual intimidation, or fear - can bring information that is useful. It may well have led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. With just one such source, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 might have been averted.

But many experts think treatment so severe as to be inhumane can be useless or counterproductive. "Even milder torture ... can result in false confessions, that is, information that is flat-out inaccurate," says Steven Welsh of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Or it can make things even more dangerous for the US, others say. "Violations of the Geneva Convention can turn a people against the United States and toward the guerrillas or terrorists," says Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "It can also act as a recruiting tool for terrorists."

Former CIA chief Stansfield Turner adds three more reasons to avoid the kind of treatment prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements the US is party to: "It undermines the values we are defending; it makes US citizens, especially military personnel, more vulnerable to similar treatment; it diminishes US stature in the world."

Yet fighting an enemy that appears to have no other goal than destroying you - and clearly does not hold to the niceties of international law in the abuse and murder of those it captures - makes that reasoning problematic.

"At least one purpose of the laws of armed conflict is to discourage atrocities during war that would preclude reconciliation of the combatants once the war ended," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "The problem is that according to Al Qaeda's view of matters, this is a war of extermination, in which postwar reconciliation is inconceivable."

Of the "evildoers" engaged in terrorism, President Bush has said "we will bring them to justice, or we will bring justice to them."

In fact, experts say, when a country is under attack, it is more interested in obtaining useful intelligence than it is in prosecuting terrorists, since confessions gained through torture probably would be inadmissible in civil or military court.

The dust was still settling over the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York when former CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black told a congressional hearing that "after 9/11 the gloves [had] come off." He was speaking generally, but the comment indicated the new realities of dealing with deadly threats that could come from any quarter and without warning.

Newsweek magazine reports this week that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a memo suggesting that "this new paradigm [the war on terrorism] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

The administration has said all along that the "enemy combatants" being held in Guantánamo Bay do not fall under the Geneva Conventions. While vigorously denying that those prisoners are tortured, officials acknowledge that treatment designed to elicit useful intelligence is the norm there. This has drawn complaints from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross also has complained that some prisoner abuses in Iraq have been "tantamount to torture."

In fact, the notion of "conventional" warfare began to break down more than a century ago. "The spread of insurgency, terrorism, genocide, and nuclear weapons in the 20th century further undermined the notion of conducting war according to rules or conventions," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

"The history of warfare seems to indicate that countries adhere to the conventions when they suffer no strategic disadvantage from doing so," says Dr. Thompson. "The rules tend to be ignored when the outcome of a conflict is uncertain, the enemy is believed to have already transgressed, or prolonged fighting has led to a more general breakdown in civilized behavior."

That would seem to describe Iraq Wednesday, including the public and political debate over whether the US is engaged in torture as part of its fight against terrorism.

Stansfield Turner, also a retired US Navy admiral, suggests a theoretical compromise: Passing a law permitting very selective use of torture on the direction of the president.

"Such a law would weaken our position in the world on torture," says Mr. Turner. But it would also "give our interrogators the threat of telling the detainees that they are going to be tortured if they don't confess."

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