Monday, January 12, 2009

So, maybe Jack Bauer isn't a role model after all

Despite claims to the contrary by U.S. government officials, experience using coercive interrogation methods on detainees -- torture -- has proven ineffective and wasteful of time and resources. In particular, the case of Abu Zubaydah, who was the first person waterboarded in the surge of anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11, stands as a stark example of how to not gather information from prisoners. That's the conclusion of David Rose in a recent article in Vanity Fair. He writes:

In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts—with Abu Zubaydah’s case one of the most glaring examples.

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

Rose isn't alone in his take on the effectiveness of the post-9/11 use of torture in interrogations. Retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman, who worked on the Zubaydah case, told the Washington Post:

"I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted," Coleman said, referring to the harsh measures. "He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."

This isn't exactly new information, but it seems to be a truth that has to be rediscovered from time to time by people looking for a quick and sure way to extract information from people who don't want to share what they know. A former military interrogator said during the 2006 announcement of the results of research conducted at Georgetown University into the effectiveness of torture, “With torture, we can not know if we are getting a truthful response or a response to end torture."

Or, as retired Air Force Col. John Rothrock, the former head of a combat interrogation team in Vietnam, told the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum, "if I take a Bunsen burner to the guy's genitals, he's going to tell you just about anything" whether or not it's true.

Not surprisingly, that Georgetown research effort, which included retired senior military interrogators and research psychologists, concluded, "Torture does not yield reliable information and is actually counterproductive in intelligence interrogations."

So, if torture is a dead-end that produces more garbage than useful information, leaving interrogators uncertain as to what to believe, who do so many people still turn to it as a Jack Bauer-esque cure-all in dire situations? Oddly enough, it may be because of our relative lack of experience in putting the screws to people. Unfamiliar with the limitations of pain and people's response to duress, we tend to assume torture has more power than it actually possesses. Jeannine Bell, a Professor of Law at the University of Indiana School of Law, made exactly this point in a 2005 paper about the ineffectiveness of torture:

Paradoxically, the moral and legal prohibition of physically coercive mechanisms may have had unintended consequences. Instead of steering interrogators to other mechanisms, it has increased inexperienced interrogators’ bloodlust. For poorly-trained investigators, physical coercion had become the longed-for instrument of last resort. They believe that torture will get the recalcitrant detainee to talk. Unfortunately, the infliction of pain becomes its own master. When interrogators resort to applying force, any knowledge they have about what other methods work might go out the window. From an intelligence perspective, this might be more acceptable if there were clear evidence of torture’s effectiveness.

But torture has proven, time and again, to be a waste of effort that produces information of, at best, dubious quality. That lesson has to be drummed into the heads of interrogators who are tempted to turn to harsh, forbidden techniques as some kind of magic key to the information that may (or may not) be locked in prisoners' minds.

Most of us know that deliberately inflicting pain and suffering as a questioning technique is just wrong. But for those who don't share our moral sentiments, it's helpful to know that it's also ineffective.

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Blogger Joel said...

It's really sad that the real reason not to torture people, the one you mentioned in your last paragraph, cuts no ice with these people at all. Sometimes I feel like I'm the last person in the world who remembers growing up proud of my country because we were The Good Guys.

God, how long ago all that seems.

January 13, 2009 6:24 AM  
Anonymous The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit said...

I'd have to disagree. Torture is very effective in at least one particular - it makes yer averij jingo feel reaaaal good about "hurting those people." It's not quite as much pleasure as bombing a whole suburb to ruins, but it'll do for a start for their sadistic fantasies about "them."

January 13, 2009 7:40 AM  
Blogger UNRR said...

When used in an attempt to extract information -- as opposed to simply force a confession or inflict punishment -- torture is just another method of interrogation. Like any other method, whether or not it is effective depends on the interrogator, the interrogatee, and the information in question. Torture can and does work sometimes, and sometimes it doesn't.

There are many good arguments against using torture, but pretending that it can't work isn't one of them. Information that is good, and which can be confirmed by other means, does not stop being good information if it is extracted through torture.

January 13, 2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger Kent McManigal said...

Torture is evil. Its effectiveness is not part of the equation. It would reduce crime to nuke low-income urban neighborhoods, but it would be evil to do so.

January 13, 2009 1:30 PM  
Blogger UNRR said...

"Torture is evil. Its effectiveness is not part of the equation"

A moral argument against torture is a different matter. But if you make a utilitarian argument against it, you have to expect utilitarian counter arguments.

January 13, 2009 1:46 PM  

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