Saturday, January 15, 2005

Does Torture Work?

Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post on January 12, presents a very rational discussion of the effectiveness of torture. She wrote:

Just for a moment, let's pretend that there is no moral, legal or constitutional problem with torture. Let's also imagine a clear-cut case: a terrorist who knows where bombs are about to explode in Iraq. To stop him, it seems that a wide range of Americans would be prepared to endorse "cruel and unusual" methods. In advance of confirmation hearings for Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales last week, the Wall Street Journal argued that such scenarios must be debated, since "what's at stake in this controversy is nothing less than the ability of U.S. forces to interrogate enemies who want to murder innocent civilians." Alan Dershowitz, the liberal legal scholar, has argued in the past that interrogators in such a case should get a "torture warrant" from a judge. Both of these arguments rest on an assumption: that torture -- defined as physical pressure during interrogation -- can be used to extract useful information.

Applebaum looks at the reasons some believe torture works and cites examples used to support that view. She then presents the opinions and experiences of military officers who know better than most that outright torture isn't a very effective means of gaining information from prisoners. She concludes,

Perhaps it's reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of "toughness" we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well.

In general, I agree with her analysis. But we have to be careful how we define "torture." Convoluted definitions involving how many vital organs may be damaged or how close a prisoner may be brought to death, if that can be measured, are pointless. Current military regulations and policies define specific measures that may be taken, and that's about as much as can be done. Leaders in the field have to make decisions in specific circumstances, using regulations and policies as guidelines. Theirs is the awesome responsibility for upholding American standards, which are uniquely moral among most of the world's military forces, while at the same time gathering the information necessary to save lives and accomplish their mission. Carping from the sidelines by people who've never had that kind of responsibility isn't helpful.

Being very hard on a prisoner suspected of possessing critical information is sometimes necessary to encourage him to divulge what he knows. In my opinion, clear-cut cases of gaining information that saves many lives justifies harsh treatment indeed. On the other hand, skilled interrogators will also recognize circumstances when a prisoner who might not break under severe measures will sing like a bird if someone is nice to him. Or, in some cases, what works is "good cop-bad cop." Those who have mastered the art of interrogation will know which approach is more likely to work.

Military leaders, like the interrogators they command, understand that excessively tough treatment of a prisoner, if taken too far, can and often does result in false or misleading information. They understand the necessity of observing the limitations of U.S. policy and law and the provisions of international agreements. They also understand that it isn't in our interest to act in ways that can be used by our enemies as a justification for mistreating captured Americans. The difficult part is balancing these valid concerns against the sometimes immediate critical need to find out what a prisoner knows.

Of course, there are some kinds of actions that are never justifiable. This includes gratuitous mistreatment of prisoners, whether for sport or simply out of cruelty. It appears that this was a major component of what happened at Abu Ghraib and perhaps elsewhere. It should be understood for what it was, and those guilty of violations, including superiors who knew about it but didn't stop it, should be punished. But let's not make the mistake of assuming that this is routine rather than extraordinary, and in particular let's not underestimate the incredible difficulties faced by those who must make hard decisions in the field.


Blogger Zelda said...

Hey Tom,

You may also want to check out this New York Times article on Israeli interrogation methods:

8:11 PM, January 15, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Zelda, thanks. That's an interesting article.

The Israelis have the advantage of dealing with terrorists over many years, unfortunately. Absolute language fluency is critical, along with in-depth cultural knowledge. That's hard to find.

4:45 AM, January 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another question that isn't asked is "What information are we torturing people for?" I strongly disaggree with torture, and opposed the confirmation of Gonzales.

I can envision a case where a terrorist offering a direct, immediate, and significant threat to the US might be tortured.

But there doesn't seem to be much of a case that those who we torture fit that description. Many are common theives who have no information to give.

We seem to be torturing people for no good reason, at best to obtain some minor tactical information. Its a very sad state of affairs, and is not consistent with what I know is the Amerian way.


12:16 AM, February 10, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

CoolAqua, if you're referring to what happened at Abu Ghraib, I agree with you. That seemed gratuitously cruel, and it's inconsistent with all U.S. policy regarding treatment of prisoners.

As I said, I have no problem with treating prisoners harshly if that's the only effective way to gain important information. What you refer to as "minor tactical information" often involves facts which could save the lives of one or more American soldiers. In that circumstance, I think a maximum effort to gain information is justified.

I know from extensive personal experience that the U.S. military is very sensitive about mistreatment of prisoners, and those who step over the line usually pay a price. That's the way it should be.

5:01 AM, February 10, 2005  
Blogger Charlie said...

I have mixed feelings about using "torture" or "interrogation techniques" to extract information from recalcitrant or resistant witnesses. First of all, the interrogators are prone to assume a conclusion and then to seek to extract that conclusion from the prisoner or person being interrogated. This is the worst way to obtain information. If the scientific method means anything at all we ought to know how uncertain subjectivity is. Making judgment calls is much like reading a crystal ball.

When going to war in particular we ought to be careful about our sources. The weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. I might remind everyone that even our police departments get wrongful confessions by means of deceptive interrogation techniques.

If we truly want to get the objective facts, then we must have confidential sources that can be independently verified. The word of someone under torture or coercion should be taken with a grain of salt.

Furthermore, the sorts of things going on in Abu Graib are not limited to Iraq. While not as common in that extreme, there is prisoner abuse by staff in almost every prison or jail in the United States. We turn a blind eye to abuse here because we've been convinced by our own propaganda that we're a free democracy and we don't violate human rights here. Tell that to the inmates who have been beaten or even killed by correctional officers here. I've served as a prison chaplain before and have privy to information that this sort of thing does happen here.

Remember: Absolute power absolutely corrupts. The human soul is sinful and no one is above abusing another. This is precisely why there ought to be checks and balances imposes at every level, including wartime interrogations. If "torture" is to be used at all, it should only be by a warrant from a judge and then everything that occurs should be video taped and recorded for review by a citizen's review board and by a competent board of lawyers.

Personally, I think the police departments and prison officials here should all be subject to review by citizens boards and by lawyers at every level, including surprise visits. This would afford a greater accountability of those in authority to the people who gave them that authority in the first place.

10:11 AM, September 17, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Charlie, I agree with the principles you talk about. However, there are cases where interrogators have to exert significant pressure to extract information from prisoners. The most important skill interrogators must have is knowing when and how to do it. This is true both of police and the military in wartime.

The warrants, civilian reviews, etc are fine for the police. The military, however, has different requirements and operates under its own legal system.

I know that prison staffs sometimes abuse prisoners in the U.S. I think the greatest abuse, however, is the prisoner-on-prisoner violence we tolerate inside prisons. Beatings and brutal rapes are not supposed to be part of the punishment for crime.

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