Alex Jones/ Transcript -- MSNBC’s Dan Abrams "debates" torturing children

MSNBC’s Dan Abrams "debates" torturing children


Tuesday, March 4, 2003

HOSTS: Dan Abrams; Steve Emerson; Shellee Smith

GUESTS: Patrick Lang; Jamie Fellner; Chris Downey; Jonna Spilbor; Paul Koretz

Can the U.S. use Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's kids as an interrogation tool? Two hikers discovered the body of 22-year-old Kristi Johnson. Michael Jackson allegedly paid a voodoo doctor $150,000 to put a curse on 25 of his enemies.

VIDEO….ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Standard for any type of interrogation of somebody in American custody is to be humane and to follow all international laws.

ABRAMS: The so-called brains behind al Qaeda in U.S. custody, but so are his young children. There's talk they could be used as leverage during the interrogation. Some saying that's going too far, but if the kids aren't actually harmed in any way, is it really a problem? We'll debate.


ABRAMS: Then, the Michael Jackson saga takes another bizarre turn. A new report says the King of Pop paid $150,000 to have voodoo hexes put on some of his Hollywood enemies. Is paying for a hex a crime? Also ahead, California may soon take no smoking to the extreme by making it illegal for people to light up, not just in public places, but also in their own homes. Isn't that a little much?


ANNOUNCER: You're watching MSNBC. From the courtroom to the battlefield, the program about justice: THE ABRAMS REPORT. Now, here's Dan.

ABRAMS: Hi everyone. Topping the agenda, what could be a controversial step in the war on terror. The possibility of using children as an interrogation tool. Right now U.S. authorities are grilling capture al Qaeda commander Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in an undisclosed country, and time is of the essence. It's a safe bet Mohammed doesn't want to talk, but he may have some incentive to do so.

When U.S. and Pakistani authorities nabbed alleged 20th hijacker Ramzi Binalshibh in Pakistan in September, Mohammed, who was hiding with Binalshibh got away. His two elementary school-aged sons did not, and they were taken into custody. The question now, can U.S. interrogators use Mohammed's kids as leverage to get him to talk, and no one is suggesting the kids be harmed in any way, but if threatening to hurt them gets Mohammed to spill the beans about al Qaeda, is that really a problem?

Joining me now is Steve Emerson, author of "American Jihad", MSNBC analyst, and Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East and South Asia Intelligence in the Defense Department. We'll be joined in a moment by someone from Human Rights Watch.

All right, Mr. Lang, let me start with you. Do you see this as a problem if they were to, again, not actually try and harm these children, but lead Mr. Mohammed to believe that they are going to be injured?

PATRICK LANG, FORMER DEFENSE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Well, I think that would be a very artificial and kind of phony way to go about what needs to be a serious, long-term interrogation of this guy. The way you break down a person like this is a high-ranking person of some organization and who thinks of himself that way is to build a whole structure of psychological pressures against him that has to do with his isolation, his lack of status, the hopelessness of his position, the fact that his movement is being defeated supposedly, and he knows very well that we or the Pakistanis have his two boys, and presumably he's something of a normal father, this can kind of hang there in the background as one of the added factors with regard to the psychological pressure line. But I cannot imagine the government of the United States going about and threatening this man to harm to his two -- his two 7 and 9-year-old children...

ABRAMS: But there are probably reminders, are there not, Steve Emerson, in the context of these interrogations that, you know, we're not talking about literally bringing the kids in there with guns to their heads, but reminding this al Qaeda leader that his kids are also in custody.

STEVE EMERSON, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, he also has to be concerned about their well being and the fact who's going to take care of them, whether they will be put, you know, put up for adoption. These are all things that actually are realistic in terms of having to explain to him that the, you know, people who are in charge of his children now can change in terms of being people who are not even Muslim. So, these are possible psychological ways of sort of inducing him, putting more leverage on him to talk.

On the other hand, you have to be very careful, because sometimes if you anger somebody like that and you raise the specter that his kids are sort of being used against him, it may only redouble their discipline to withhold information. I was speaking to an interrogator last night who spent time in Guantanamo Bay, and he said that his most successful interrogations in Guantanamo was when he bonded with the suspects and he allowed them to believe that he was on their side over time, and that induced the greatest amount of information. Of course, everyone is different here, so we really don't know how he's going to respond to either the good cop or the bad cop approach.

ABRAMS: Jamie Fellner joins us, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch. Ms. Fellner, would you have a problem with -- look, both of our guests are saying that it's almost absurd to suggest that they're going to bring the kids in with guns to their head and threaten them in that way. But, what about the idea of reminding him that his kids are in custody and leaving open the possibility that, who knows what's going to happen, if he doesn't start sharing information.

JAMIE FELLNER, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Well, I think it's exactly in the who knows, and what kind of who knows you're suggesting. It is the definition of torture, and I think it's important to remember this, is to inflict severe physical or mental pain to extract information or for other purposes.

ABRAMS: But anything could be mental pain, right?

FELLNER: Obviously -- well -- but we're talking about severe mental pain. Obviously, if they threaten to torture his children, if he did not talk, that's unquestionably torture. If, on the other hand, they said, look, we'll make sure your kids get a college education at the college of their choice if you talk, that is not torture. In between that, it depends on what they're threatening. If they are trying get him to talk by making him fear for the well being of his children and the fear is so strongly for their well-being, and it basically breaks his will, then you're slipping into, if not torture, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment.

ABRAMS: Who defines that? I mean, I understand there's a definition here, and I see the definition, but it doesn't define it beyond just saying that severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental. It seems that everyday law enforcement uses techniques where they lie, they trick, they get people...

FELLNER: Well...

ABRAMS: ... to trust them, et cetera.

FELLNER: ... that's OK. Lying and tricking, getting people to trust you, that's all OK, and you're right to point out that these aren't norms that are, you know, written hard, fast, and easily. Obviously, if you put electric shocks to somebody's genitals, that's torture. How much you can kind of play around psychologically is much more difficult to judge. But there -- but interrogators know what the limits are. And in fact, when they are deliberating using pain or discomfort to try and break someone down, that's when you're getting into shady area. To bond with someone, to bribe somebody, to encourage them that's in their long-term best interest or possible plea-bargaining...


FELLNER: ... that's all OK.

ABRAMS: Mr. Lang, I would think that anything is OK beyond physical torture. I mean, I would think that -- because I don't think there is such a thing as defining mental torture. I just don't think that we can start getting into the business of saying, well, this might be going too far mentally and this is not. I think...


ABRAMS: ... hang on, I want Mr. Lang to answer it.


ABRAMS: Well, you know, I think you're right in a way. I think it's kind of delusory to think that in the business of interrogating an enemy combatant in a war situation, that various kinds of psychological pressure should not be used. I think that's just not realistic. But I would say that my experience of interrogations over a long period of time indicate that what Steve said is correct, that the best and most useful interrogations result in first, the destruction of this person's self assurance and belief that he has any other choice but to cooperate with you and then rebuilding a kind of bond between the interrogators and this person so that he, in effect, changes sides.

Now, if you start threatening to torture his children, this is very unlikely, in fact, to cause him to switch to your side, and that's what you want. This guy is a big fish, he knows a great deal, and you want him to help you over a long period of time.

ABRAMS: All right, Ms. Fellner, I've only got a few seconds. You wanted to respond to my comment before about basically saying that I don't think that this mental definition means anything.

FELLNER: I think it absolutely does mean something. If you thought you were listening to your children scream in the room next door and you were told that they were being brutalized, that would be, if you have children, that would be...

ABRAMS: Yes...

FELLNER: ... mental pain every bit as great as any physical pain that's being inflicted on you.

ABRAMS: But the problem is we just can't start getting into defining that. That's the problem I have. There it is no definition.

FELLNER: Oh I don't think...

ABRAMS: And I'm not going to accept Human Rights Watch's definition, and I think that the bottom line is they just have to go on the physical cutoff, which says, sorry, physical out of the question, mental, everything's in play. Final word.

FELLNER: What about them using all kinds of drugs that would play with their minds?

ABRAMS: That's physical...

FELLNER: We consider...

ABRAMS: ... that's physical.

FELLNER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Well, we consider mental pain and the world did when they put it into the definition...


FELLNER: ... there was agreement that mental pain is every bit as real as physical pain...

ABRAMS: All right...

FELLNER: ... and that both, you know...


FELLNER: ... you have to operate within that framework.

ABRAMS: I understand what it says, but I think that the practical realities in this situation make that...

FELLNER: But the practical reality...

ABRAMS: I know, you're going to give me the slippery slope argument.

FELLNER: No I'm not. You know the slippery slope. I'm also going to say that the world is going to be watching, and it's not just...

ABRAMS: No, the world isn't going to be watching. They're not going to see one bit of this interrogation. They're not going to hear one bit about it.

FELLNER: They will eventually know what happens...

ABRAMS: I think that's wishful thinking on your part...

FELLNER: You don't think it'll be brought to trial?

ABRAMS: Do I think this -- no, I actually don't.


ABRAMS: I don't think we will ever see a trial, and I'm predicting it right now because this is a program about justice, I don't think we will ever see a trial. I look forward to it if it happens. Ms. Fellner, thank you very much for coming on the program...

FELLNER: You're very welcome.

ABRAMS: I know you have to run. We wanted to keep you longer...

FELLNER: All right...

ABRAMS: Thank you, appreciate it.

FELLNER: Thank you.

ABRAMS: All right, we have our tactics, they have theirs. When we return, we're going to take a peek inside the pages of the al Qaeda handbook where -- quote -- "brothers are told to essentially send their captors on a wild goose chase."

And just when you may think things can't get worse, we have more potential terror to worry about. Saddam Hussein may be readying his own band of sleeper terrorists to attack. Should we go after him, and he's actually tried it before.

Plus, this will have some neighbors fuming, a proposed ban on smoking in your own home -- only in California, folks. Stay with us.

ANNOUNCER: You're watching the program about justice. From the courtroom to the battlefield.