Tainted by Torture

How evidence obtained through coercion is undermining the legal war on terrorism.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

There are plenty of good reasons to avoid using torture in interrogations. It’s an immoral and barbaric practice condemned by most Western nations and theological traditions, for starters. International human rights law and U.S. criminal law both outlaw it. And as if that’s not enough, there is serious doubt as to whether torture even produces reliable intelligence, as Mark Bowden explains in the October 2003 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Add this additional reason to the list: Any information gained through torture will almost certainly be excluded from court in any criminal prosecution of the tortured defendant. And, to make matters worse for federal prosecutors, the use of torture to obtain statements may make those statements (and any evidence gathered as a result of those statements) inadmissible in the trials of other defendants as well. Thus, the net effect of torture is to undermine the entire federal law enforcement effort to put terrorists behind bars. With each alleged terrorist we torture, we most likely preclude the possibility of a criminal trial for him, and for any of the confederates he may incriminate.

Thanks to a report in Wednesday’s New York Times, we now know that the United States has intentionally used (with the sanction of the highest levels of government) torture tactics to pry open the mind of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged to be one of al-Qaida’s top masterminds. According to the Times, “C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as ‘water boarding,’ in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.” Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described such tactics as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. And the FBI has instructed its agents to steer clear of such coercive interrogation methods, for fear that their involvement might compromise testimony in future criminal cases.

So, setting aside for a moment all the moral, political, and practical problems of such tactics (staggering though these problems may be), as a purely legal matter, the use of torture during interrogation has so many negative consequences that it may ultimately allow some accused terrorists to win acquittals merely because it will lead to suppressed evidence of their factual guilt.

Evidence (such as a confession) gathered as a result of torturing a person like Mohammed will be excluded at his trial, if he ever sees one. This is true both in federal courts, which operate under the Federal Rules of Evidence, and military courts, which operate under the Military Rules of Evidence. Both the Fifth Amendment’s right against compulsory self-incrimination and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process preclude the use of a defendant’s coerced statement against him in criminal court. In addition, any evidence gathered because of information learned through torture (sometimes called “derivative evidence”) will likely also be excluded. Furthermore, the Supreme Court suggested in its landmark Fifth Amendment case, Oregon v. Elstad, that it might exclude evidence gathered after the use of any coercion, regardless of attempts by police and prosecutors to offset the coercion with measures like a Miranda warning. If Mohammed were prosecuted, and a court followed the line of reasoning set forth in Elstad, he might well see the charges against him evaporate entirely for lack of evidence.

Right now, the Justice Department has no plans to criminally prosecute Mohammed or other top al-Qaida leaders (like Abu Zubaida) currently being held by the United States in shadowy detention facilities overseas. But federal prosecutors have filed charges against alleged al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui for being part of the 9/11 conspiracy. And the Supreme Court is now considering whether trials of some sort are constitutionally required for other alleged terrorists. Problems with the Moussaoui case reflect the problem with evidence obtained through coerced confessions. In that case, it’s not the government that seeks to bring in the tortured al-Qaida leaders’ out-of-court statements—it’s Moussaoui, the defendant. However, the result may be the same. Such out-of-court statements will likely be challenged as hearsay by whatever side isn’t trying to bring them into court. And under the applicable hearsay exception, for declarations against interest [see Rule 804 (b)(3) ], such statements are only admissible if they carry certain indicia of reliability. Given the questionable ability of torture to produce reliable information, this will be a hotly contested issue. It’s not clear whether this evidence will ever be admitted to court.

This torture of top al-Qaida leaders may also cause problems for the government were there to be a trial for the alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. The tip that led to Padilla’s initial detention on a material witness warrant in May 2002 came from intensive CIA interrogations of Zubaida, a close associate of Osama Bin Laden. In December 2003, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Padilla be released from military custody and either charged in federal court or released. However, any prosecution of Padilla could be very problematic for the government, because the case for his guilt rests mostly (if not entirely) on secret interrogations of al-Qaida leaders, which now appear to have involved torture. If a criminal case is ever brought against Padilla, his lawyers are sure to challenge this crucial evidence on a number of grounds, including reliability and the fact that it was procured with torture in a way that “shocks the conscience.”

Interestingly, such problems would not have arisen had these suspects been hauled before a military tribunal at the outset. The Pentagon’s procedural rules for tribunals allow evidence to be admitted if it “would have probative value to a reasonable person.” These rules contain no provision for the exclusion of involuntary statements, and on their face, do not allow the presiding officer of such tribunals to rely on Supreme Court precedent or federal case law to decide issues of evidence. Presumably, these tribunals were designed to allow for the admission of evidence from dubious circumstances, including the “intensive questioning” of Mohammed and Zubaida. So, if the Pentagon moves forward with its plans to try al-Qaida members before these courts, it may be able to evade this problem altogether.

However, even that won’t solve the problem for the rest of the legal system, which only allows evidence obtained through constitutional means. By using torture to question the top terrorists it has in custody, the government has effectively sabotaged any future prosecutions of al-Qaida players—major and minor—that might depend on evidence gathered through those interrogations. It’s plausible that skilled interrogation by the FBI, in accordance with American law, could have produced valuable evidence of these terrorists’ guilt, which could have been used in court. But now that torture has been used, that may just be wishful hindsight.

As a nation, we still haven’t clearly decided whether it’s better to prosecute terrorists or pound them with artillery. But by torturing some of al-Qaida’s leaders, we have completely undermined any efforts to do the former and irreversibly committed ourselves to a martial plan of justice. In the long run, this may be counterproductive, and it will show that we have compromised such liberal, democratic ideals like adherence to the rule of law to counter terrorism. Torture and tribunals do not help America show that it believes in the rule of law. But if CIA officials continue to use tactics that will get evidence thrown out of federal court, there will increasingly be no other option.