JERUSALEM—Long before the Bush administration launched its war on terrorism, opened secret detention centers or debated the wisdom of harsh interrogation techniques, Israel wrestled with similar questions about what it could do to protect itself.
As President Bush prepares to decide what interrogation techniques the CIA can use to question suspects, Israel might serve as a road map that exposes potential pitfalls along the way.
Since Israel's Supreme Court curbed the use of extreme techniques in 1999, human rights studies suggest that interrogators are relying more on psychological tricks, informants and electronic surveillance to solicit information.
An unpublished survey of 600 Palestinian prisoners by the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, based in Ramallah, West Bank, found a significant decrease in the use of some controversial interrogation techniques.
But some human rights groups complain that harsh interrogation still exists, and others worry that the reliance on psychological techniques may do more long-term damage than physical coercion.
Mahmoud Sehwail, the director of the Palestinian torture-treatment center, said Israel's newest methods had led to an increase in the number of detainees with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"They concentrate on psychological torture because it doesn't leave physical marks, and the harm is more severe and more long-lasting than the physical," he said. "What is the aim of torture? It's not to kill his body, it's to kill his spirit and kill his soul."
Mohammed Barghouthi—the labor minister for the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the militant group Hamas—was held and questioned for 48 days this summer before being released without charge. He said he was shackled to a chair in a painful position for hours at a time. But more painful, he said, were the threats against his family, the screams of interrogators and the humiliation of other Palestinian lawmakers that he was forced to witness.
"I am able to forget the physical torture, but not the psychological torture," Barghouthi said in an interview at his West Bank home. "It is engraved in my memory. I could take the treatment if I had done something wrong, but when the arrest is political, it is hard to take."
Israel's intelligence service declined to comment on specific cases and would say only that all of its interrogations are legal. It wouldn't address whether harsh tactics were effective in producing useful intelligence, a key dispute among U.S. officials, many of whom argue that information obtained from such questioning is unreliable.
Bush must prepare an executive order that will outline what methods the CIA can use under a law signed this month. Sponsors of the bill contend that their measure will prevent the use of the most contentious methods, such as "water-boarding," which makes suspects feel as if they're being drowned. But the law gives the president broad discretion to decide what tactics to approve, and Israel's experience could provide guidance.
Israel's modern debate over torture began after two Palestinians died in Israeli custody in 1984. An Israeli intelligence agent beat the two to death after they'd hijacked a bus in the Gaza Strip.
The head of Israeli's Shin Bet intelligence service and 10 of his agents tied to the scandal received a presidential pardon, and a state review concluded that interrogators had the right to use "moderate psychological and physical force."
When Palestinians rebelled during what's known as the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1993, Israeli interrogators used a variety of rough techniques on many of the 23,000 detainees, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group. Interrogators violently shook suspects, causing brain damage sometimes and at least one death. They also forced suspects to lie backward over a chair in a painful position known as the "banana."
Human rights groups challenged the methods, prompting the 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that curbed the use of shaking and other more extreme tactics. But the ruling allowed interrogators to argue retroactively that they'd needed to use tough measures on so-called "ticking time bomb" suspects with crucial information about imminent attacks.
When the second Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, intelligence officials found ways to work around the court decision. In the first three years after the ruling, they asked for permission to use tougher interrogation techniques at least 90 times, according to B'Tselem. Between 2002 and 2006, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel filed more than 1,000 complaints with the attorney general over interrogation methods and other allegations of abuse.
Still, some tough techniques were used considerably less often.
Before the 1999 ruling, three-quarters of those surveyed by the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture said they were forced to endure a much-criticized technique known as "shabah" in which suspects' hands are shackled behind their backs in uncomfortable chairs while dark hoods are placed over their heads and loud music is blasted into the rooms. After the ruling, less then 40 percent claimed to have been subjected to the method.
The use of shaking in interrogations fell from 45 percent to 25 percent, according to the survey.
Instead, according to human rights groups, Israel stepped up its use of psychological intimidation, informants, collaborators and electronic surveillance.
In a candid interview published last month in the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, an Israeli interrogator named only as M. outlined techniques to elicit information without physically harming the suspect.
"You use tricks, fake documents, tell the interrogee that you just killed someone in the next room—and that's legitimate," the paper quoted M. as saying. "I don't tell him, `Be careful, I'll kill you,' but I am meant to create the psychological effect of fear without raising my hand on him."
Israel also has increased its use of "birds," informants who befriend suspects in their cells, persuade them to reveal their secrets, then pass them to intelligence officials.
Last month, Israel launched a public campaign to recruit more spies capable of using electronic devices to collect information. The Israel Intelligence Agency unveiled a Web site (http://www.shabak.gov.il/mod) to lure high-tech workers to help their country.
A recruiting ad on the home page shows a young man, his face electronically blurred, sitting by a computer.
"He was a software developer at Chromatis," the ad says. "His name was Gadi. Today his name is G, and he is preventing terror attacks."
In the first weeks of the campaign, the agency has received more than 3,000 resumes.
But it's the use of the most extreme methods that still concerns human rights activists.
Yehezkel Lein, B'Tselem's research director, conceded that the tactics may be effective in getting people to talk. But he said that if you tried to justify some forms of pain to get information from "ticking time bombs" you could end up approving the worst kinds of torture.
"When you take that position, there is no logical or ethical reason to limit it to moderate physical pressure," he said. "If you're trying to prevent killing 100 children, why limit it to moderate physical pressure? Why not severe physical pressure?"
In the newspaper interview, the anonymous interrogator said he worried that using painful methods could produce unreliable information from suspects who simply were trying to stop the pain.
"In the end, your goal is not to get an admission out of them but to get a reliable admission out of them," he said. "So yes, you can hang someone from their balls and he will release an admission, but how reliable will it be?"
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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