How Do We Make Him Talk?

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An inmate of Camp X-Ray is escorted out of an interrogation hut in Guantanamo Bay

The U.S. can't waste time reveling in the capture of Abu Zubaydah. Its next task is equally urgent: persuading the al-Qaeda COO to talk. Washington will say only that it has stowed Zubaydah in a secure location while tending to his bullet wounds and that he may be transported to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he could become the first al-Qaeda man tried before a military tribunal. But more crucial than Zubaydah's ultimate destination will be any stops he makes along the way.

Last week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld swatted down reports that the U.S. plans to ship Zubaydah to a nation, such as Egypt or Jordan, that unlike the U.S. has no qualms about extracting information through torture. But a well-placed American military official tells TIME that at least initially the U.S. had looked for an ally to conduct an interrogation. "Someone is going to squeeze him," says the official. "We've been out of that business for so long that it's best handled by others." No matter who pressures Zubaydah to talk, the squeezing would most likely consist of drugs, mind games and sleep deprivation. "It's not pulling out fingernails," says the official, "but it's pretty brutal."

The "T word," as Rumsfeld prefers it to be called, has been percolating through legal and military circles for some months. Is the brutalization of one life justified if it could save thousands? According to a CNN/USA Today poll last fall, 45% of Americans surveyed supported torture to prevent attacks. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has endorsed the issuance of "torture warrants" in the rarest of instances. While ethicists remain squeamish at the prospect of torturing low-level al-Qaeda recruits who probably aren't privy to life-sparing information, the stakes may be different in Zubaydah's case. Anthony D'Amato, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law who has defended a doctor charged with genocide, finds torture legally reprehensible but sees some moral wiggle room when it comes to Zubaydah. "In the realm of morality, while torturing a human being is forbidden, it is nevertheless required to save human lives," he says.

Opponents make no exceptions whatever for the practice, which has long been barred by both U.S. and international law. "Trickery, sure ? but not torture," says Scott Silliman, a professor at Duke University School of Law. "We never want to become like those we claim as our enemies."

U.S. officials aren't optimistic Zubaydah will ever crack. But even a silent Zubaydah may spare American lives. Says an official: "If he never says a word to anyone, just having him out of the equation is enough."

With reporting by Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Adam Zagorin/Washington