opinion

"20th hijacker" blows up torture argument

Will Bunch

Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2008, 12:43 PM

Most Americans don't know the name of Mohammed al Qahtani, the so-called "20th hijacker" who was snagged at the Orlando International Airport in 2001 before he could have allegedly taken part in the 9/11 attacks. However, I suspect the story is known better here in Philadelphia than anywhere else, since the most popular local radio talker, Michael Smerconish, has undertaken taken a campaign to recognize the heroism of the agent who nabbed him. a man named Jose Melendez-Perez. (You can here a Smerconish radio interview with Melendez-Perez here.)

Smerconish is big on the war on terror, and he also is a prominent advocate for torture. Not "enhanced interrogation," but torture, as spelled out in his 2005 blog post called..."In Support of Torture."

Ok, let’s take it a step further. Let’s assume she knows Zarqawi’s whereabouts but won’t give up that information for a piece of quiche and a warm blanket.

Now what?

I say do whatever is necessary to get her to talk. Waterboard her. Strap her to a pig. Do whatever it takes.

Meanwhile, al-Qahtani -- a seeming poster child for al-Qaeda terrorism against the United States -- has never been brought to justice, despite nearly seven years in custody, most of those at Guantanamo Bay. And now there are questions over whether he will ever be tried:

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The Pentagon has dropped charges against a Saudi at Guantanamo who was alleged to have been the so-called "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, his U.S. military defense lawyer said Monday.

Mohammed al-Qahtani was one of six men charged by the military in February with murder and war crimes for their alleged roles in the 2001 attacks. Authorities say al-Qahtani missed out on taking part in the attacks because he was denied entry to the U.S. by an immigration agent.

But in reviewing the case, the convening authority for military commissions, Susan Crawford, decided to dismiss the charges against al-Qahtani and proceed with the arraignment for the other five, said Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, the Saudi's military lawyer.

What happened? It's not clear, but there is increasing evidence that the prosecution of Mohammed al-Qahtani has been fouled up beyond repair...because he was tortured at Gitmo:

The former head of interrogations at Guantánamo Bay found that records of an al-Qaida suspect tortured at the prison camp were mysteriously lost by the US military, according to a new book by one of Britain's top human rights lawyers.

Retired general Michael Dunlavey, who supervised Guantánamo for eight months in 2002, tried to locate records on Mohammed al-Qahtani, accused by the US of plotting the 9/11 attacks, but found they had disappeared.

Why? Well, it could have to do with this?

Saudi-born al-Qahtani was sexually taunted, forced to perform dog tricks and given enemas at Guantánamo.

The CIA admitted last year that it destroyed videotapes of al-Qaida suspects being interrogated at a secret "black site" in Thailand. No proof has so far emerged that tapes of interrogations at Guantánamo were destroyed, but Sands' report suggests the US may have also buried politically sensitive proof relating to abuse by interrogators at the prison camp.

Look, I've made this point here so many times before that I won't belabor it now. But torture doesn't work. It's not just that it's a fundamentally immoral practice that violates international and American law as well as basic humanity...though there is that. The practice has also badly hurt America's image in the world and probably inspired new terrorists in the process. It is an ineffective practice that produces bad and misleading information that is usually useless or counter-productive, and not one of the many advocates of the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario has come up with a case where this has actually happened.

And now there's this: People who are actual terrorists who plotted attacks on innocent people and who deserve to spend life behind bars may never receive American justice (I'm not going to try to wade into the military tribunal issue here) -- precisely because the legal process was undermined by torture.

That's why torture advocates like Michael Smerconish are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong -- and not just morally. In their zeal to fight their kind of war on terrorists, the one that looks so appealing on "24" and in the movies, they're enabling real-life terrorists to avoid justice.

UPDATE: Here's more on the torture of al-Qahtani from Jeralyn Merritt at Talkleft.

Will Bunch

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