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Human Bargaining Chips


Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2007

In the new world that we've created under the label of the "war on terror" -- a world in which the U.S. government has adopted the investigative techniques of Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- hostage-taking is not a practice exclusive to terrorists.

Randall Bennett, a veteran State Department security official who appears in a recently-released video, tells the story carefully and precisely. It seems that Omar Saeed Sheikh, then a suspect in the abduction of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, had family in the city of Karachi.

"We had brought his family to the police station," explained Bennett, describing events in early February 2002, "where we were detaining them." They called Sheikh, informed him that they were holding his family, and told him to turn himself in.

Mariane Pearl, Daniel Pearl's wife, sets out the facts in greater detail in the book she wrote about her husband's murder. "A perfectly honorable-looking family, all devout Muslims," Omar Sheikh's cousins, uncle and grandfather, among others, were held hostage to convince Sheikh to turn himself in.

The logic of terrorism regards people as a means to an end. An obscure Islamist group in Gaza holds journalist Alan Johnston prisoner in an effort to secure the release of Palestinian-born cleric Abu Qatada, incarcerated in the U.K. A larger group of militants holds Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for a year in an underground basement somewhere in Gaza, hoping to trade him for a number of Palestinian prisoners.

The counterterrorism officials described in Mariane Pearl's book know this tactic well. "They kidnap, we kidnap," said one of the Pakistani agents working with Bennett to try to find Pearl.

Why hold innocent people? "Bargaining chips," the Pakistani agent told Mariane Pearl bluntly. The kidnappers in Gaza could not have explained it better.

Child Hostages

Omar Sheikh was found relatively quickly. And as Bennett assures viewers who watch his video on the State Department's website, after Sheikh's discovery "we let the family go back to their house immediately."

Others held as hostages have not been so lucky. According to overlapping reports, seven-year-old Abed al-Khalid and nine-year-old Yusuf al-Khalid were picked up by Pakistani security forces from an apartment in Karachi in September 2002, during an attempted capture of their father, accused terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The two were held in Pakistan until at least March 2003, when their father was arrested as well.

Then, according to press accounts, they were whisked out of the country by American intelligence officials, their captivity used as leverage to coerce Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk. How long they were ultimately held is not known.

Nearly four years later -- years mostly spent in CIA prisons -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was finally brought before an administrative proceeding whose transcript was made public. He complained about torture, and also about the treatment of his children. "They arrested my kids intentionally," he said. "They are kids. They been arrested for four months they had been abused."

We don't know exactly what Mohammed was told about his children's treatment. According to journalist Ron Suskind, CIA interrogators warned Mohammed that they would harm his children if he didn't cooperate.

Downward Spiral

Taking hostage the family members of terrorist suspects is deplorable; taking hostage the children of terrorist suspects is worse; threatening to abuse these child hostages is more appalling still.

Where does this road lead?

According to former Bush administration advisor John Yoo, the president has the legal power, in some circumstances, to order that children's testicles be crushed in front of their parents. (He did later point out that to do so would be morally wrong.) Yoo was speaking hypothetically, but his unwillingness to admit to any legal constraint on the president's power in fighting terrorism was, ironically, a mirror image of the perspective he purports to abhor.

Terrorists don't see themselves as sadistic sickos; they commit atrocities, in their view, because that is the only means they have of achieving their goals. "Military necessity," in other words, excuses everything.

Except that it doesn't. It doesn't excuse detaining children in CIA prisons; it doesn't excuse taking innocent journalists hostage, and it doesn't excuse the U.S. government's misdeeds in the Daniel Pearl investigation.

Joanne Mariner is a New York-based human rights attorney. Her previous columns on abuses committed in the "war on terror" are available in FindLaw's archive.

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