On the day of the September 11 attacks, Egyptian national Abdallah Higazy was staying in a hotel across the street from the World Trade Center. He was evacuated along with the rest of the guests, leaving most of his belongings behind. When he returned a few days later to retrieve his stuff, he was met by FBI agents.
Hotel employees had reported finding a radio made for communicating with airplanes in his room safe, so the FBI arrested Higazy and questioned him. At first, he denied ever having seen the radio. That is, until the FBI agents threatened to have Higazy’s family tortured by Egyptian secret police if he didn’t confess. Seeing that he was in trouble regardless, but that confession was the only way to protect his family, he told the FBI it was his radio.
Three days later, a pilot showed up at the same hotel to claim his belongings and reported that his radio was missing. It turned out that the radio had been found on a table in the room, not the safe, and the pilot and Higazy had never met each other. All of the charges against Higazy were dismissed, and he was set free.
All of this is publicly known because it is contained in a judge’s opinion ruling that Higazy has the right to sue the FBI agents for damages. It briefly appeared on the Web site of the United States Court of Appeals in Manhattan, where a blogger on legal issues found it. Then it was taken down without warning, and the next day a new version appeared, with one difference. The parts about how the FBI had extracted Higazy’s confession were redacted.
The redacted section included this:
Higazy alleges that during the polygraph, Templeton told him that he should cooperate, and explained that if Higazy did not cooperate, the FBI would make his brother “live in scrutiny” and would “make sure that Egyptian security gives [his] family hell.” Templeton later admitted that he knew how the Egyptian security forces operated: “that they had a security service, that their laws are different than ours, that they are probably allowed to do things in that country where they don’t advise people of their rights, they don’t – yeah, probably about torture, sure.”Higazy later said, “I knew that I couldn’t prove my innocence, and I knew that my family was in danger.” He explained that “[t]he only thing that went through my head was oh, my God, I am screwed and my family’s in danger. If I say this device is mine, I’m screwed and my family is going to be safe. If I say this device is not mine, I’m screwed and my family’s in danger. And Agent Templeton made it quite clear that cooperate had to mean saying something else other than this device is not mine.”
Higazy explained why he feared for his family:
The Egyptian government has very little tolerance for anybody who is —they’re suspicious of being a terrorist. To give you an idea, Saddam’s security force—as they later on were called his henchmen—a lot of them learned their methods and techniques in Egypt; torture, rape, some stuff would be even too sick to . . . . My father is 67. My mother is 61. I have a brother who developed arthritis at 19. He still has it today. When the word ‘torture’ comes at least for my brother, I mean, all they have to do is really just press on one of these knuckles. I couldn’t imagine them doing anything to my sister.
Fortunately, a few people had downloaded the original, and someone e-mailed it to the blogger. Soon after putting it online, he was contacted by a court clerk asking him to take it down because it was classified, but he refused.
What does this tell us?
First of all, if the pilot hadn’t shown up to correct the FBI’s mistake, Higazy would today very likely still be detained or worse, deported to Egypt and tortured. The debate about torture usually centers on whether it is permissible to torture terrorists, but that is not what we are talking about. Defending our government’s practice of torture, or of sending people to other countries to be tortured, is to defend the torture of innocent men and women.
And that’s not just an unfortunate byproduct of a torturing policy. In the long history of torture, extracting false confessions from innocent people is the primary reason it has been used. Think Spanish Inquisition. Think Soviet show trials. If someone is guilty, you find evidence of that guilt. If there’s no evidence, you use torture to create some.
For that same reason, if a confession is achieved through torture or the threat of torture, there is no way to tell if it is genuine. So it is not only useless, but directly harmful to our ability to prevent terrorism or have a rational foreign policy. Anyone who doubts the problem of relying on false information hasn’t been paying attention to how we ended up in Iraq in the first place.
The second lesson is in the FBI’s reaction. Instead of realizing their mistake and being thankful that it didn’t turn out much worse in this instance, they tried to cover it up. For a second time, pure luck intervened to get the truth out.
That tells us it is very likely that many people out there have been less lucky. Many people have been or are today being tortured or detained indefinitely, based on false information gathered in similar ways.
Torture is presented in public debate as a choice between safety and freedom. That is not the choice.
If an innocent person can be tortured or sent to be tortured by our own government, none of us is safe, and none of us is free.