FBI and Justice Department investigators are increasingly frustrated by the silence of jailed suspected associates of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, and some are beginning to that say that traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans.
More than 150 people rounded up by law enforcement officials in the aftermath of the attacks remain in custody, but attention has focused on four suspects held in New York who the FBI believes are withholding valuable information.
FBI agents have offered the suspects the prospect of lighter sentences, money, jobs, and a new identity and life in the United States for them and their family members, but they have not succeeded in getting information from them, according to law enforcement sources.
"We're into this thing for 35 days and nobody is talking," a senior FBI official said, adding that "frustration has begun to appear."
Said one experienced FBI agent involved in the investigation: "We are known for humanitarian treatment, so basically we are stuck. . . . Usually there is some incentive, some angle to play, what you can do for them. But it could get to that spot where we could go to pressure . . . where we won't have a choice, and we are probably getting there."
Among the alternative strategies under discussion are using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators, to extract information. Another idea is extraditing the suspects to allied countries where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture.
Under U.S. law, interrogators in criminal cases can lie to suspects, but information obtained by physical pressure, inhumane treatment or torture cannot be used in a trial. In addition, the government interrogators who used such tactics could be sued by the victim or charged with battery by the government.
The four key suspects, held in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center, are Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan detained in August initially in Minnesota after he sought lessons on how to fly commercial jetliners but not how to take off or land them; Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan, Indians traveling with false passports who were detained the day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks with box cutters, hair dye and $5,000 in cash; and Nabil Almarabh, a former Boston cabdriver with alleged links to al Qaeda.
Questioning of "the two with the box cutters and others have left us wondering what's the next phase," the FBI official said.
One former senior FBI official with a background in counterterrorism said recently, "You can't torture, you can't give drugs now, and there is logic, reason and humanity to back that." But, he added, "you could reach a point where they allow us to apply drugs to a guy. . . . But I don't think this country would ever permit torture, or beatings."
He said there was a difference in employing a "truth serum," such as sodium pentothal, "to try to get critical information when facing disaster, and beating a guy till he is senseless."
"If there is another major attack on U.S. soil, the American public could let it happen," he said. "Drugs might taint a prosecution, but it might be worth it."
Even some people who are firm supporters of civil liberties understand the pressures that are developing.
David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who obtained the release of Middle Eastern clients after they had been detained for years based on secret information, said that in the current crisis, "the use of force to extract information could happen" in cases where investigators believe suspects have information on an upcoming attack.
"If there is a ticking bomb, it is not an easy issue, it's tough," he said.
Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel during the Clinton administration, wrote recently that the Supreme Court distinguished terrorism cases from cases where lesser threats are involved. He noted that five justices in a recent deportation case recognized that the "genuine danger" represented by terrorism requires "heightened deference to the judgments of the political branches with respect to matters of national security."
Former attorney general Richard L. Thornburgh said, "We put emphasis on due process and sometimes it strangles us."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he said, "legally admissible evidence in court may not be the be-all and end-all." The country may compare the current search for information to brutal tactics in wartime used to gather intelligence overseas and even by U.S. troops from prisoners during military actions.
Extradition of Moussaoui to France or Morocco is a possibility, one law enforcement official said. The French security services were quick to leak to journalists in Paris that they had warned the CIA and FBI in early September, before the attacks, that Moussaoui was associated with al Qaeda and had pilot training.
The leak has irritated U.S. investigators in part because "it was so limited," one FBI official said. "Maybe we should give him [Moussaoui] to them," he said, noting that French security has a reputation for rough interrogations.
The threat of extradition to a country with harsh practices does not always work.
In 1997, Hani Abdel Rahim al-Sayegh, a Saudi citizen arrested in Canada and transferred to the United States under the promise that he would tell about the bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in Saudi Arabia, refused to cooperate in the investigation when he got here.
The FBI threatened to have al-Sayegh sent back to Saudi Arabia, where he could have faced beheading, thinking it would get him to talk. "He called their bluff and went back, was not executed and is in jail," a government official said.
Robert M. Blitzer, former chief of the FBI counterterrorism section, said offers of reduced sentences worked to get testimony in the cases of Ahmed Ressam, caught bringing explosives into the country for millennium attacks that never took place, and Ali Mohammed, the former U.S. Army Green Beret who pleaded guilty in the 1998 embassy bombings and provided valuable information about al Qaeda.
The two former al Qaeda members who testified publicly in the 1998 bombing trials were resettled with their families in the United States under the witness protection program and given either money or loans to restart their lives.
Torture "goes against every grain in my body," Blitzer said. "Chances are you are going to get the wrong person and risk damage or killing them." In the end, he said, there has to be another way.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company