January 14, 2005

Torture To Get Information Doesn't Work

One the more frustrating thing about all this discussion about torture is that people ignore the fact that torture is not just morally wrong, but it also just flat out doesn't work. Military experts who oppose torture don't oppose it because they are squeamish, but because it is such a poor way to get accurate information. As Anne Applebaum puts it:

Aside from its immorality and its illegality, says Herrington, torture is simply "not a good way to get information." In his experience, nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk with no "stress methods" at all, let alone cruel and unusual ones. Asked whether that would be true of religiously motivated fanatics, he says that the "batting average" might be lower: "perhaps six out of ten." And if you beat up the remaining four? "They'll just tell you anything to get you to stop."

She then asks the right question:

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.

Yes, this is the problem. People still want to believe that torture works because they are convinced that people will give up good information under duress. But what really happens is people will happily spill their guts when given the chance, but the value of what they spill is extremely low.

While there is significant debate over the general effectiveness of torture, it appears that it is not a particularly effective means of acquiring accurate information.

First, consider the American and European witch trials. During these trials a significant number of people confessed, under brutal torture, to being witches. If torture is an effective means of acquiring truthful information, then these trials provided reasonable evidence for the existence of witches, magic, the Devil and, presumably, God. However, it seems rather odd that such metaphysical matters could be settled by the application of the rack, the iron maiden and the thumb screw. As such, the effectiveness of torture is rather questionable.

Second, extensive studies of torture show that it is largely ineffective as a means of gathering correct information. For example, the Gestapo's use of torture against the French resistance in the 1940s and the French use of torture against the Algerian resistance in the 1950s both proved largely ineffective. As another example, Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, found that the torture of suspected criminals typically yields information that is not accurate. A final, and rather famous example is that of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Under torture, al-Libi claimed that Al Qaeda had significant links to Iraq . However, as he himself later admitted, there were no such links. Thus, the historical record seems to count against the effectiveness of torture.

Third, as history and basic human psychology show, most people will say almost anything to end terrible suffering. For example, a former prisoner from Abu Ghraib told the New York Times that, after being tortured, he confessed to being Osama Bin Laden to put and end to his mistreatment. Similar things occur in the context of domestic law enforcement in the United States : suspects subjected to threats and mistreatments have confessed to crimes they did not commit. As such, torture seems to be a rather dubious way of acquiring reliable intelligence.

Given that torture is not effective as a means of gathering reliable information, the utilitarian argument in its favor must be rejected. This is because torturing people is not likely to yield any good consequences.

Since torture is not an effective means of getting good information, then why do people persist in using it?

Despite its ineffectiveness as a means of extracting information directly, torture does seem to be an effective means towards another end, namely that of intimidation. History has shown that authoritarian societies successfully employed torture as a means of political control and as a means of creating informers. Ironically, while actual torture rarely yields reliable information, the culture of fear created by the threat of torture often motivates people to bring information to those in power.

So, what we have is a system that does not provide reliable information that we can use to protect ourselves, but instead we have a system that promotes intimidation and therefore a state such as Saddam ruled. What does that say about Americans who advocate torture?

Posted by Mary at January 14, 2005 06:29 AM | Human Rights | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

I have a friend who once specialized in interrogation for the US Army and later, the Marines. He's been retired for a bit now, but I am loathe to ask of his opinions on all this, as I don't need for my phone to melt in my hands due to his screaming about how stupind the American military is today.

We once discussed his job over a few beers (he's never been one to want to talk about his military service, in part becasue he would get atttached to snatch squads that would grab an opposing soldier or two as part of their recon activities), and he said that torture rarely if ever worked. In fact, his last tour of duty was during the first invasion of Iraq, and his method of interrogation was simple.

1) Grow a beard to turn an imposing figure into a imposing berserker Viking figure.

2) Don't maintain the new beard.

3) Let the regular guys ask the usual polite but firm questions in interrogation.

4) If no information was forthcoming, burst in at some point, look at the prisoner with deep longing, give them a kiss on the lips, and say something to the effect of "How I've longed for your arrival..." in fluent Arabic.

Worked every time.

Drove his superiors bats.

Posted by: palamedes at January 14, 2005 09:47 AM

As a former Special Forces soldier, i can tell you that it is well known in the Special Operations community that torture is not an effective method for information gathering. this became clear in WWII and during Vietnam. I know a lot of people dont believe this but, this is taught at the School for the Americas. to wit, Torture is not effective; "except as a method to terrorize the public at large".

Posted by: Hubris Sonic at January 14, 2005 10:57 PM