Does Torture Work? Depends On Your Goal.

18 May, 2009

One of the earliest long posts I ever did was an anti-torture post (Three Cases to Consider).  I offered, for your consideration, three historical cases in which torture was used in order to force false confessions from medieval Jews accused of creating and spreading the Black Death, from accused witch Johannes Junius, and from a Syrian Jew named al-Hallaq who had been implicated in the disappearance of a Capuchin Monk.  In all three cases, they were forced to confess to impossibilities:  spreading the plague through poisoned wells, consorting with devils, and using Christian blood for Passover bread.

At the time that I wrote that post, my point was that torture does not work.  Never has, never will.  I was (sort of) wrong:  torture does work.  If, of course, you understand what the torturer is attempting to accomplish.

If a person is tortured in order to gain information, a great deal of time is wasted to gain a product (the information) which can be more reliably, and more quickly, gained through normal interrogation procedures:

Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. (NY Times)

Aby Zubaydah provided a great deal of actionable intelligence through the course of normal interrogations.  Then, after a few months, he was tortured.  Had I had access to this officer’s story back in February of 08, the article would have, most likely, been entitled “Four Cases to Consider.” 

Of course, back then, I also assumed that the reasoning behind the (misguided and illegal) torture was to get vital information.  Yes, I was naive enough to give even the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt on that one.  Wow, was I wrong.

Again, as I said above, torture does work.  In very limited circumstances and only for a specific goal:  to force a false confession.  If torture is used to get useful information it is useless.  If it is used to force a confession which can be used politically, it can work.  Back to the New York Timesand Zubaydah:

By the time Bybee wrote his memo [authorizing torture], Zubaydah had been questioned by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for months and had given what limited information he had. His most valuable contribution was to finger Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind. But, as Jane Mayer wrote in her book “The Dark Side,” even that contribution may have been old news: according to the 9/11 commission, the C.I.A. had already learned about Mohammed during the summer of 2001. In any event, as one of Zubaydah’s own F.B.I. questioners, Ali Soufan, wrotein a Times Op-Ed article last Thursday, traditional interrogation methods had worked. Yet Bybee’s memo purported that an “increased pressure phase” was required to force Zubaydah to talk.

As soon as Bybee gave the green light, torture followed: Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002, according to another of the newly released memos. Unsurprisingly, it appears that no significant intelligence was gained by torturing this mentally ill Qaeda functionary. So why the overkill? Bybee’s memo invoked a ticking time bomb: “There is currently a level of ‘chatter’ equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks.”

We don’t know if there was such unusual “chatter” then, but it’s unlikely Zubaydah could have added information if there were. Perhaps some new facts may yet emerge if Dick Cheney succeeds in his unexpected and welcome crusade to declassify documentsthat he says will exonerate administration interrogation policies. Meanwhile, we do have evidence for an alternative explanation of what motivated Bybee to write his memo that August, thanks to the comprehensive Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees released last week.

The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearanceon “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding. (My Emphasis)

Note the timetable:  before the mid-term elections. Was the authorization to break United States law, and international law, made to stop a ticking time bomb?  Were human beings tortured to save American lives?  Were people subjected to waterboarding 83 times to prevent another attack on the United States?  No.  

 The Bush Administration threw away our international reputation regarding human rights, our international goodwill which followed the 2001 terrorist attacks, and threw away whatever bully-pulpit we once had in denouncing authoritarian regimes for purely political considerations.  America tortured so that the Bush Administration could gain more seats in congress.  America tortured so that the Republican candidates could defeat the Democratic candidates.

Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, Yoo and Bybee, committed war crimes for crass short-term political advantage.



  1. Do you watch the Rachel Maddow Show? Last week she has several episodes dedicated to this very topic. They were very enlightening, and quite damning.

  2. Craig: I watch very little TV. I have seen some of the Maddow clips on Crooks and Liars. She’s good. One of the few real reporters in the news business.

  3. Have you seen any of Jesse Ventura’s recent appearances? I have some issues with Jesse, but when it comes to talking about torture he’s got some great lines. First, he can speak from experience — he’s been waterboarded. It was part of his military training back when he was a SEAL. He’s unequivocal in calling it torture, and says the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” is bullshit; it’s just Cheney-speak for torture. Second, he makes it clear torture can get whatever answer the interrogators want out of the person being tortured. As he puts it, “Give me an hour with Dick Cheney, waterboarding, and Cheney will confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”

    He also made a great point on the View on Monday — he asked why, if waterboarding isn’t torture, the FBI didn’t use it on Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols back in the 1990s. Why are the only people being waterboarded all Muslim? And he refers to Gitmo as “our very own Hanoi Hilton.” He says he’s living in Mexico now because he’s ashamed to be an American.

  4. Nan: I don’t agree with much of Ventura’s politics, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of torture. When I hear conservative populists like Ventura speak out like this, and read about the reasons for the torture, I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the corner is turning regarding prosecutions.

    Also, if waterboarding is not torture, why did we imprison and (in a few cases) execute Japanese soldiers for waterboarding Allied soldiers?

  5. I once read a book from the library about how an interrogator outsmarted a terrorist in order to get to a high-ranking one, but I cannot for the life of me remember the title. The book was riveting and read like a thriller even though it was non-fiction. I think it’s quite a recent book published either this year or the last.

    After that book, I was pretty convinced that torture was not the best method for interrogation. However, the best method needs lots of brainwork and real effort. I think there are many interrogators who take a short-cut because they are too lazy or inept to be able to carry out an interrogation professionally.

  6. Temaskian: Even the Germans, in WWII, knew that torture did not work. If they actually wanted information, they used pain killers or alcohol, freindship or good cop/bad cop, and other tactics to get prisoners to talk. Torture was used as a punishment, a way to get agents to double over, and as an (unsuccessful) way to stop recruiting by the underground. Also, if someone was arrested for political reasons (power struggles within the NSDAP), a confession could be coerced through torture. Of course, the ‘crime’ to which he confessed was fictional, but after enough torture, people will do anything to stop it.

    I would disagree, though, that this had anything to do with inneptitude at the front line level: this was an innept political decision made, as the evidence and timeline suggests, for political reasons. The interrogators were following orders from above (which does not excuse the crime, but it does help explain it).

  7. Yes, I was naive enough to give even the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt on that one.

    I hope you’ve learned your lesson.

  8. In fact, the book did allude to the fact that those who tortured had explicit approval from their superiors, someone high up.

    Furthermore, the author had to do what he did covertly, as what he did (the non-torture method) was looked askance at by the others. But he achieved the results.

    The impression I got was that some of the interrogators were favored by the higher-ups, but were actually inept at their jobs as professional interrogators. And these were those that continually used torture methods.

  9. Chappie: One of the things that angers me most about the Bush administration is that I now profoundly distrust my own government. I knew that we did distasteful things; I knew that there was incompetence (usually at higher levels). But I still trusted the government to eventually get things right. Not sure I still have that trust.

    Temaskian: Oddly, it appears that the FBI officers knew a heckuvva lot more about proper interrogation techniques than the CIA.

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