The Fairly Extraordinary Claim That Torture “Doesn’t Work”

by | December 19, 2014

As if public “die-ins” weren’t sufficiently incongruous with the peace and goodwill of the Christmas season, our American neighbours have been indulging in a ferocious spasm of recrimination over the practice of torture. A committee of the U. S. Senate has compiled a godawful behemoth of a report (PDF here) on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners during the absurdly named “War on Terror”. Even the “executive summary”, the only part to have been made publicly available, runs to a forbidding 500 pages or so. I’m not about to read the whole thing, but the main conclusion is evidently that the CIA, by golly, tortured a lot of people and ended up with very little to show for it. This has provided considerable ammunition to the naysayers in a longer-running, and not entirely American by any means, debate over the effectiveness of torture in the context of interrogation.

Representative of the naysaying side is a piece that Martin Robbins published in the Guardian a few years ago. Robbins is all the more credible as a torture skeptic because he is quite unapologetic about being open to the idea of using torture if it could be shown to work:

I’m a pragmatic humanist , and so I don’t really believe in absolutes when it comes to morals. Could I support the use of torture in some contrived situation? Yes, definitely, and it would be irrational to say otherwise. If mutilating John Doe’s balls is going to stop a nuclear bomb going off in my favourite London pub then hand me the curling tongs.

Of all the things that might threaten the well-being of an honest London pub, nuclear bombs are probably well down the list, but the hypothetical scenario does more or less clarify where Robbins stands on the ethics of torture. On the separate issue of the effectiveness of torture, Robbins’ main point is a familiar one:

Suppose I start beating you around the head, demanding that you tell me that Justin Bieber is in fact a supremely talented artist. Eventually, although it may take several days of torture to get there, you’ll tell me what I want to hear, but that doesn’t make it true.

I like to think that it would take several weeks of such treatment before I was prepared to admit that Bieber was anything but a syrupy, shallow confection served up by an artistically bankrupt pop music industry. That aside, Robbins is trotting out the standard criticism that torture is ineffective because its victims will “say anything” in their desperation to make the pain stop.

But here’s the thing. Torture has been used to loosen reluctant tongues in many parts of the world, if not most, since time immemorial. Common sense suggests that it should work pretty well, and in this case common sense is backed up by a clear and straightforward logical argument. People are generally very averse to experiencing pain. If someone has information that he or she is reluctant to share, inflicting pain and other unpleasant treatment (such as the truly bizarre “rectal feedings” mentioned in the American report) should provide one hell of an incentive to spill the beans. With that in mind, the claim that torture “doesn’t work” looks like a fairly extraordinary one, or at least one that deserves careful skeptical analysis.

The problem with the “say anything” argument, it seems to me, is that it assumes a rather naïve approach on the part of the torturer. What Robbins and his fellow naysayers appear to have in mind is a protocol like this:

  1. Capture some people.
  2. Tell them what you want to hear.
  3. Torture them until they say it.
  4. Believe them!

It’s only fair to point out that torture has often been used in essentially this way over the centuries, for example to extract confessions without much concern for their truth or falsity. I once attended a lecture by Craig Murray, who was Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan during the height of the War on Terror. Murray claimed that the Uzbek government had been torturing innocent citizens of its own country in exceptionally brutal ways, for example by boiling them alive, in order to make them “confess” to having links with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The resulting “intelligence” would then be dutifully handed over to the Americans, I suppose in return for brownie points and perhaps a few concrete favours.

A torturer who was generally interested in extracting reliable information, however, would surely make it clear that what he or she “wanted to hear” was the truth. Distinguishing truth from falsehood would likely be far from straightforward, but that’s undoubtedly the case in any adversarial interrogation – no matter how much “rapport” may appear to exist between interrogator and subject, the latter often has every reason to lie through his or her teeth. Whether or not torture is being used, then, the interrogator will need to ask questions to which he or she already knows the answers in order to gauge the honesty of the subject, cross-reference the information being obtained with intelligence provided by other subjects, check whatever details of the answers given by the subject are susceptible to empirical verification, pay attention to what the subject doesn’t say, and throw in some questions that lead away from what the interrogator suspects to be the truth in order to see how the subject responds. It’s an exercise, come to think of it, that should warm the heart of any committed skeptic. The relevance of torture to this process is that it gives the interrogator a suite of particularly harsh options for punishing silence, evasiveness or demonstrable mendacity on the part of the subject, or for “softening up” a subject prior to interrogation. Every other trick in the book can still be used, but the interrogator who is able and willing to resort to torture has one more card up his or her sleeve.

Is that card an ace or a joker? As far as I can see, all of the available evidence is anecdotal and contradictory. The U. S. Senate report says that torture “was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation”; former U. S. Vice President Dick Cheney and some self-described “former senior officers of the Central Intelligence Agency” retort that yes, it bloody well was. U. S. Senator John McCain, who was “trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders” in Vietnam, sides with the Senate report (in part because “all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights” – pull the other one, John); former SAS sergeant Andy McNab, who was whipped, burned and subjected to extreme dentistry in Iraq, sides with its detractors.

The opinions of actual torturers are similarly contradictory. Don Dzagulones (quoted on p. 355 of this PDF), who tortured Viet Cong prisoners, ended up as a naysayer:

If it happened, I’m certainly not aware of it. Like prisoner X comes in, you beat the living snot out of him. He tells you about a Viet Cong ambush that is going to happen tomorrow, you relay this information to the infantry guys, and a counterambush and the good guy wins and the bad guys loses all because you tortured a prisoner. Never happened. Not to my knowledge.

On the other hand, Paul Aussaresses, a deceased French general who made Dick Cheney look positively cuddly, credited torture with his successes in Algeria:

He arrived in Philippeville (now Skikda), Algeria, in autumn 1954, just as full-scale hostilities were about to break out. There he made no bones about his “enhanced” interrogation techniques, and quickly won a reputation for his ability to penetrate FLN [Front de Libération Nationale] cells. Such was his success that, in 1957, he was promoted to chief of intelligence by Gen Jacques Massu, leading what Aussaresses himself described as “the company of death”. In the alleyways of the Casbah he and his men specialised in snatching suspected FLN fighters off the streets, or from their homes, usually at night. Those taken were frequently never seen again. They were subjected for lengthy, brutal interrogations, and their tortured bodies would then be disposed of.

In his old age, Aussaresses opened up about his Algerian experiences, earning a fair bit of opprobrium in the process. He summarized his attitude in pithy terms:

The revelations, made when Aussaresses was 82, could hardly be called confessions, because they were not accompanied by any sign of remorse. On the contrary, Aussaresses noted that if confronted by the same situation again “it would piss me off, but I would do the same”.

On the empirical question of the effectiveness of torture in extracting information, I must admit that Cheney, McNab and Aussaresses sound to me like the ones who are talking sense. Aussaresses presumably didn’t get promoted for nothing, and Dzagulones (like many other naysayers) is setting the bar awfully high. How often does any interrogation technique yield intelligence about an “ambush that is going to happen tomorrow”? The question is whether torture can sometimes shake loose more information than an interrogator would otherwise be able to obtain, not whether it yields successes of a kind that could hardly be expected outside the confines of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

On the question of whether torture should be used, I suppose it depends on the circumstances. If Canada were embroiled in a conflict in which defeat would be disastrous, the odds were stacked against us, and the use of torture could plausibly snatch victory from the proverbial jaws, I’d be happy to raise a glass to Aussaresses and break out Robbins’ not-so-proverbial curling tongs. However, that kind of scenario seems comfortably remote. Deranged would-be jihadists may be able to knock off a soldier here and there, but they’re too weak and disorganized to represent a strategic threat, and for some strange reason Allah isn’t providing them with all that much help. They may piss us off, but surely we can frustrate most of their knavish tricks without any need for curling tongs – and, for that matter, without any need for assaults on our traditional civil liberties.

For the moment, then, we Canadians can sit in our armchairs and debate the effectiveness of torture without much sense of urgency. However, I’m amused to note that Martin Robbins ended his piece with a disclaimer:

Minor edit: Amended the closing paragraphs slightly to avoid giving anyone the impression I’m daft enough to suggest the government conduct randomized controlled trials for torture!

I don’t see why such trials shouldn’t be carried out, with respect to techniques that are unlikely to result in permanent harm, provided a pool of volunteer subjects willing to provide informed consent could be assembled. Data are good.

8 thoughts on “The Fairly Extraordinary Claim That Torture “Doesn’t Work”

      1. Diane G.

        That means I’m subscribing to this thread, so I can follow the conversation via email notifications.

  1. Bruce Van Dieten

    So if torture should happen to yield “actionable intelligence”, it is justified? If it could prevent a nuclear attack, torture would be justified? If Canadians weren’t so cuddly in our safe and secure armchairs, and could apply critical thought to the issue, we might be able to overcome our humanist revulsion to torture? Where did you come from?

    Torture is inhumane and breaks international law! From the Nuremburg trials on, civilized people’s have agreed that torture degrades us ALL and is illegal. That should be the end of it. Still need more?

    Then how about unintended consequences. If we allow torture of our enemy combatants, then what prevents our troops from facing the same “justified” treatment? But at least we’re talking combatants. The report talks about non-combatant “suspects” ripped from their homes and tortured then released after days of dehumanization, now innocent. How could that ever be acceptable? How about the Jihadists born out of our torture and detention in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the many black sites we’ll never know about? How can we be surprised that jihadists are on our front door and even in our “kitchen” when we authorize indiscriminate drone attacks, when we authorize the kind of collateral damage policies we were party to as NATO mission participants? How do even get to hold the moral high ground and discuss the “Rule of Law” internationally when, to us, everyone is an insurgent or terrorist until proven NOT to be through torture. How did we get to be so disgusting?

    And who gets to decide who is a potential source of “actionable intelligence” and deserves to be captured and tortured? If you make more mistakes then wins, what is the value of this program? And if you can not show even one instance where this torture has worked then I find no value to your “charming” hypothesis. Oh, but you say there is proof it has worked, read what x and y sadist had to say? How about less anecdote and produce the proof! The report found NONE. It was only refuted by those who are highly motivated to argue the point because of the threat of prosecution or the pain of having one’s legacy smeared, (which is likely more important to Cheney and Rumsfeld then prosecution as Obama would undoubtedly reprieve them anyway)! The report found NO direct proof that torture provided value. But that is not logical to you? Your appeal to common sense, that surely if you beat someone enough they will give you information of value, strikes me as the same kind of intelligent thought as those Christians who say “Surely we must come from something, it’s common sense!” You seem to believe that if you sift through enough tons of dirt you will find some gold. But the report found NONE.

    But even if it had, AT WHAT COST? Are we willing to sacrifice our humanity to keep us a little bit safer? That strikes me as the height of cowardice and a total abdication of our responsibility to the law and to humanity.

    For remediation, I would recommend Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wares” to you. At over 800 pages it may overwhelm you, as it seems the 500 page report has. You are a seriously disturbed human being. Please do some homework.

    1. Corwin Post author

      How about less anecdote and produce the proof!

      So what kind of “proof” of the effectiveness of torture would you accept? What would that look like? I don’t think we have good evidence for or against the proposition that torture sometimes produces useful information, and the anecdotal evidence seems mixed. It’s silly to take one report, about one interrogation programme, as gospel truth – especially when the topic has been so heavily politicised.

      Regarding your other points, you and I are probably somewhat closer to agreement than you imagine. I’m not defending America’s tactics during the “War on Terror”, or Canada’s general willingness to go along with them – as I said in the post, I don’t really think the jihadists represent much of a strategic threat to Western countries, and resorting to torture, drones, assassinations, mass surveillance and all the rest of it seems like a gross overreaction. But if I really thought Canada’s back was to the wall, then yes, I’d favour at least considering the use of some pretty harsh and extreme options. I don’t believe that makes me “disturbed”, just unflinching.

  2. lyle

    ‘Torture has been used to loosen reluctant tongues in many parts of the world, ‘
    –>argument ad populum?

    ‘… since time immemorial.’
    –>argument from tradition?

    ‘Common sense suggests…’
    –>and then contradicts itself with another suggestion. absence makes the heart grow fonder vs absence makes the fond heart wander. bother are expressions from ‘common sense.’ any arguement that tells us ‘common sense says’ is pretty damn shakey.

    …’is backed up by a clear and straightforward logical argument. People are generally very averse to experiencing pain.’
    –> however, a person who knows giving up some information will doom a goal or person he/she considers of more import than their own life or comfort will endure great hardship, maybe even choose death before betrayal. our instinct can be overruled by our logic. and love for something can win out over the survival instinct. like how some people can overcome their empathy (presuming they have any) to do things that cause harm to others for the sake of some greater goal they rationalize is worth it.

    1. Corwin Post author

      I suspect absence makes some hearts grow fonder, and other hearts wander, depending on the personalities and circumstances involved. Both phenomena are pretty well attested. Similarly, I have no trouble believing that some people in some situations would choose hardship and death over betrayal, as you say – but would everyone? Or are enough people susceptible to torture that it might, if one were determined to extract information from an uncooperative prisoner, be worth a try?

      While I don’t consider common sense and armchair logic to be conclusive by any means, I do think they provide some strong a priori reasons to be sceptical of claims that torture never, or even very rarely, “works” as an interrogation tool.


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