THE GHOSTS of interrogations past have come back to haunt the Bush administration. This week, the legal officer supervising the military trials at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dismissed capital charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, who allegedly would have been the 20th hijacker during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had he not been prevented from entering the country. The decision has been widely reported as a serious setback for the administration's quest to bring terrorists to justice. It is much more and much worse than that: It is a palpable reminder of the inhumane acts committed by U.S. personnel and sanctioned by top officials in the name of protecting Americans from extremists.
Once described by the administration as one of the "worst of the worst," Mr. Qahtani was captured in late 2001 and has been held by the United States ever since. In trying to squeeze information from the Saudi national, U.S. personnel obtained permission from then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to threaten Mr. Qahtani with dogs, force him to withstand prolonged stress positions, interrogate him for 20 hours a day and subject him to sexual humiliation in order to break him psychologically. By most accounts Mr. Qahtani is now indeed a broken man, unable to communicate meaningfully even with those who would help him. Susan J. Crawford, who dismissed the charges against him, either came to believe that Mr. Qahtani's statements were unreliable and inadmissible because they were coerced; or, perhaps, that the proceedings against Mr. Qahtani had to be halted to keep a litany of abuses from being recounted within earshot of the rest of the world.
In either case, Mr. Qahtani's experience shows that the horrors portrayed in the photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which have so deeply damaged U.S. prestige and influence around the world, were not invented on the night shift there, as Mr. Rumsfeld claimed, but were approved by him. Official investigations found that the techniques used on Mr. Qahtani "migrated" to Afghanistan and Iraq. His case is testament to the fact that extreme tactics, even when used to prevent violence, almost always backfire.
There are others awaiting trial at Guantanamo who were subjected to torture; the administration has admitted, for example, to waterboarding Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two others. Prosecutors are attempting to "cleanse" the statements of these defendants by extracting the same evidence through more legitimate interrogation techniques. This may clear the way for introducing evidence needed to convict the Sept. 11 conspirators. But it should not be forgotten that by the time the need for such cleansing arises, serious damage has already been done -- to those who were subjected to abuse and to the country that authorized it.