"FBI and Justice Department investigators are increasingly frustrated by the silence of jailed suspected associates of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, and some are beginning to that say that traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans."

Thus began a piece by Walter Pincus on page 6 of the Washington Post on Sunday, Oct. 21 -- and if you suspect that this is the overture to an argument for torture, you're right. The FBI interrogators have been getting nowhere with four key suspects in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, now held in New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center. None of these men have talked, and Pincus quotes an FBI man involved in the interrogation as saying, "it could get to that spot where we could go to pressure ... where we won't have a choice, and we are probably getting there."

Some FBI interrogators are thinking longingly of drugs like the so-called "truth serum," sodium pentothal; others, the "pressure tactics," i.e., straightforward tortures, used by Shin Bet in Israel, banned after fierce public debate a few years ago, which included sensory deprivation (an old favorite of British interrogators in Northern Ireland), plus physical torments, many involving being tied up for long periods of time in agonizing positions.

Another idea is to send the suspects to other countries for torture by seasoned experts. Israel is not mentioned, nor the British. Extradition of Habib Zacarias Moussaoui to France or Morocco are apparently possibilities.

I was astounded to find David Cole, noted liberal professor at Georgetown University Law Center being quoted as saying, "the use of force to extract information could happen" in cases where investigators believe suspects have information on an upcoming attack. "If there is a ticking bomb, it is not an easy issue, it's tough," he said.

As Cole surely knows, the "ticking bomb" rationale was used by Israel's torture lobby for years, long after it had become clear that it had simply become a routine way of dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of suspects. Eventually, the Israeli courts said torture was simply unacceptable, and Shin Bet has been complaining ever since.

Right now the disposition of the FBI (on one account intent on interrogating every Arab American male between the ages of 21 and 40 in this country) is doubtless to assume that the interviewee might have knowledge of a ticking bomb. Are they all to be tortured? Once you accept that torture might produce results (as, expertly performed, it undoubtedly would), where are you going to stop? Perhaps the one out of 200,000 you didn't apply the boot, electrodes or "truth drugs" to might have held the secret of the ticking bomb.

The FBI claims it is hampered by present codes of gentility. The irony is that the U.S. has earned international reproof in recent years precisely because of charges that torture is practiced by many police departments and in many prisons, with Abner Louima the best known recent example. There's plenty of testimony about beatings. The threat of putting a suspect where he might be raped by other inmates is also a familiar story. Because of the rape facilities, more conventionally known as the U.S. prison system, there are estimates that twice as many men as women are raped in the U.S. each year.

The most infamous disclosure of consistent torture by a police department in recent years concerned cops in Chicago in the mid-'70s through early '80s who used electroshock, oxygen deprivation, hanging on hooks, the bastinado and beatings of the testicles. The torturers were white and their victims black or brown. A prisoner in Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California was thrown into boiling water. Others get 50,000 volt shocks from stun guns. Many states have so-called "secure housing units" where prisoners are kept in solitary in tiny concrete cells for years on end, any of them going mad in the process.

Last year the UN delivered a severe public rebuke to the United States for its record on preventing torture and degrading punishment. Amnesty International has denounced U.S. police forces for "a pattern of unchecked excessive force amounting to torture."

Since its inception, the CIA has taken a keen interest in torture, avidly studying Nazi techniques, and protecting and employing their exponents, such as Klaus Barbie. The FBI could ship the four Arabs to plenty of countries taught torture by CIA technicians, including El Salvador. Robert Fisk reported in the London Independent in 1998 that after the 1979 revolution, Iranians found a CIA film made for the SAVAK on how to torture women. The CIA's official line is that torture is wrong and ineffective. It is indeed wrong. On countless occasions it has been appallingly effective.

There was a time in the 1960s when the FBI was under severe pressure to find the killers of three civil rights workers in the South. A couple of years ago, a detailed account in the New Yorker convincingly suggested that in its hour of need the Bureau turned to a notoriously brutal Mafia enforcer who kidnapped one suspect and tortured him at a military base until he disclosed where three bodies had been dumped. But that was unofficial. It is hard to imagine that the FBI is seriously contemplating an officially sanctioned use of torture, but in that case, why was the unnamed official speculating along those lines to the Washington Post?

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.