There's no arguing that the Bush administration hit a home run with the capture Saturday of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said to be the operations chief of the Al-Qaida terrorist network and the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, murderous attack on America's mainland. Mohammed is a walking encyclopedia on global terror and knows what initiatives are in the pipeline. He also undoubtedly knows the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the world's leading terrorist, or, at the very least, knows how to get in touch with him.
For these and other reasons, he should be persuaded to talk -- quickly. Why the urgency? Because as President Bush prepares to send American troops into the Iraq with the goal of ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, it is important for the administration to be prepared for any reaction from Al-Qaida. Intelligence agencies especially need to know where in the United States the Al-Qaida cells are located and what marching orders they have received.
But American interrogators must also be careful not to step over the line between legitimate interrogation techniques, such as the use of truth serum and sleep deprivation, and torture. While most Americans would agree that a man who has the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands deserves to be tortured, utilizing such a strategy to make Mohammed talk could come back to haunt the United States.
With hundreds of thousands of American troops now in the Middle East and with untold numbers of military personnel in various countries as part of the president's war on global terrorism, there is a very real possibility that Americans will be captured, either by Saddam's henchmen or Islamic extremists who belong to Al-Qaida or are in league with bin Laden. They won't hesitate to torture their captives if the word gets out that American interrogators have thrown caution to the wind in their treatment of the man who has played a role in every major Al-Qaida attack over the past 10 years. The Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper quotes a former CIA counterterrorism chief as saying that the Kuwaiti-born Pakistani national was the "field general for the [9/11] operation." Vince Cannistraro characterized Mohammed's capture as "a major event."
American interrogators will have their hands full, but that doesn't mean he can't be broken. It will take persistence, skill and a great deal of persuasion to secure Mohammed's cooperation, but it's not an impossible task.
Indeed, his capture was the result of a series of arrests and interrogations in recent months of Al-Qaida operatives, especially Ramzi Binalshibh, described by the Washington Post as Mohammed's cohort. In addition, U.S. authorities said they expect many leads from the search of the terrorist's living quarters in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. The Al-Qaida operations chief is undergoing questioning at an undisclosed location outside Pakistan.
The American people have been asked to accept at face value the president's contention that Saddam is closely tied to Al-Qaida and bin Laden. With the capture of Mohammed, the administration has the opportunity to prove the cynics wrong.