Two weeks ago the struggle against the use of torture in the U.S. got a boost, by accident. A federal court in New York City published an opinion in a civil suit that includes a graphic description of the FBI extracting a false confession from a completely innocent man by threatening to have his family tortured. Making such a threat is considered torture.
But the court seems to have belatedly realized it made a mistake in publishing the torture details. Within minutes of having published the opinion, the court withdrew it and published a redacted version a day later. In place of the threat of torture, the sanitized version reads: “This opinion has been redacted because portions of the record are under seal. For the purposes of the summary judgment motion, [FBI Agent] Templeton did not contest that [the suspect’s] statements were coerced.”
But the cat was out of the bag. The original opinion had been copied, so we have the now-suppressed text.
The innocent man who was tortured is an Egyptian named Abdallah Higazy. In 2001 he was a 30-year-old engineering student at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. On September 11, he was living in the Millennium Hotel, which is across the street from the World Trade Center. All the hotel guests were evacuated when the second plane hit the towers.
When Higazy returned to the hotel to recover the property he left behind, he was confronted by three FBI agents, who asked him about a 2-way radio that had been found in the hotel, a radio designed for communication with aircraft. Higazy told them, truthfully, that he had never seen the radio and knew nothing about it. But the FBI agents thought that Higazy was lying, so they took him into custody.
While Higazy was being held in solitary confinement for 29 days, he “confessed” that the radio was his. But the case against him suddenly fell apart when an airline pilot showed up at the hotel to reclaim his property, including the same radio that Higazy had confessed was his.
Thanks to the court’s mistake, we know why Higazy invented a story about owning the radio and how the FBI got him do it. It paints an ugly picture of the way the FBI treats suspects and the way that the court of appeals helps cover up the FBI’s illegal behavior.
According to the unredacted decision, an FBI agent “explained that if Higazy did not cooperate, the FBI would . . . ‘make sure that Egyptian security gives [his] family hell.’”
The suppressed text of the opinion continues, “[The FBI agent who had questioned Higazy] 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 ‘. . . . 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.’”
So, to protect his family, Higazy made up a story, with the FBI’s help. First Higazy said that he found the radio. But then he reversed himself and said he had no connection to the radio. “Agent Templeton next banged on the table and told Higazy to tell him the truth. Higazy then claimed he found the radio at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, but once again recanted this story and said the radio was not his. And once again, Templeton banged on the table and demanded the truth.”
“Finally, Higazy explained to Templeton that he stole the radio from the Egyptian Air Force and used it to eavesdrop on telephone conversations. Higazy did not recant this version. Agent Templeton next prepared a written statement for Higazy to sign that included this explanation.”
The picture is pretty clear – whenever Higazy denied any connection to the radio, the FBI interrogator, who had already threatened Higazy’s parents, reiterated the threat with a display of violence. Finally Higazy came up with a story that satisfied the FBI, but which was also a total fabrication.
If we needed evidence that torture is not only immoral and illegal but also completely ineffective, could we ask for a better example?
*Michael Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, where Jonathan Bennett is a volunteer. The Center for Constitutional Rights is active in many cases to enforce the prohibition of torture in U.S. and international law.