Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Let's Talk Torture

It's not easy to talk torture. First, you have to get around the verbal pitfalls. Are we talking about rules, or a lack of rules? Are the people being interrogated detainees, or prisoners? Terrorists, or suspected terrorists? Prisoners of war, or enemy combatants?

I'm going to try to avoid those verbal traps by jumping straight to the HOTM. Which we can get to via two questions: (1) what is torture; and (2) does it work.

What is torture? It's easy to define torture at the margins, but the margins are always easy. An ocean view room at the Ritz Carlton Maui is not torture. Having your fingernails pulled out is.

But somewhere in the middle things become much more subjective. Is keeping someone in an uncomfortably cold room torture? What if the room has inadequate light? Is interrogating someone for four hours straight torture? Eight hours? Twenty-four? Intruding into someone's personal space? Yelling in his face? What about solitary confinement? Silence vs noise? Insults? Threats of violence?

Let's put aside the first question for a moment and examine the second. And then we'll see how they're linked.

Doe torture work? That is, does it lead to effective intelligence? I'm not sure. I've never tortured someone and I've never been tortured. But my guess is that the answer is, it depends. On the kind of information you're after; the amount of information you already have (by which you can judge the quality of what's extracted); the kind of torture employed; perhaps most of all, on the strengths, weaknesses, determination, susceptibility, and other idiosyncrasies of the person being tortured.

In other words, the honest answer to the question of "Does torture work?" is probably... sometimes.

Okay, then. Why not just employ the practice wholesale? When it doesn't work, nothing lost. When it does, much is gained.

Let's back up there a minute, and take a look at that notion of "nothing lost." If torture really did cost nothing, we'd be doing it all the time. And we wouldn't stop at waterboarding, either... as Ving Rhames' character Marsellus Wallace put it in Pulp Fiction, we'd just "get medieval." That we're not suggests some inherent awareness of torture's inherent costs as well as its possible benefits.

I can imagine several costs. First, the practice brutalizes its practitioners and by extension the society that condones it. Second, it spreads easily because it's an easy substitute for more exacting, nuanced, and effective forms of interrogation. Third, it produces a lot of false data along with the occasional actionable intelligence because the person being tortured will offer up anything to make the torture stop.

Let's look at two extremes. First, we torture wholesale. By doing so, we extract every bit of meaningful intelligence the subjects have in their minds. But we also incur enormous costs, as detailed above, including so much false information that the real leads are largely obscured and rendered useless in the process. Conclusion: wholesale torture doesn't make sense.

Second, we do everything we can to make interrogations pleasant. We keep the subjects in five star hotel rooms; we feed them three gourmet meals a day; we submit questions to them only with their express consent and desist the moment they tell us they're tired. We incur none of the costs detailed above. But we get no useful intelligence, either.

It seems, then, that somewhere in the middle lies an optimum balance -- tactics tough enough to be effective (what is torture?) without being counterproductive (does it work?). And the fact that those tactics are effective without being counterproductive enables our society to justify them, and to bear them, as an ugly necessity.

Torture offers benefits, but also costs. Opponents ignore the former; proponents, the latter. The uncomfortable truth lies somewhere in the middle.


dkgoodman said...

I'm going to diverge from topic for a moment.

What about capital punishment? How do we feel about capital punishment?

Personally, I'm in favor of capital punishment. Kinda. You see, while I do believe that some criminals or terrorists deserve to be dealt with that way (can you spell Osama bin Laden?), I don't trust our system of "justice" to determine that with a high enough degree of accuracy. The recent spate of cases where DNA evidence has revealed that the wrong man was done wrong has convinced me of that. There are holes in the system. So I'm in favor of it in theory, but not in practice.

Now, if you send the wrong man to prison, and it's later discovered that an error was made, you can give the poor guy a sack of money and profuse apologies and send him back to the world. Sorry, dude. You can't ever really make up for the time he's lost, but he's still whole and able to begin a new life.

But with capital punishment, there's no "Sorry, dude" for a corpse. I don't know of any prosecutor's head that's rolled because the wrong man was executed.

I feel the same way about torture. Just the other day it was revealed that we deported a Canadian man to Syria to be tortured based on claims from the Canadian police that were wrong. I don't think you can un-torture someone.

Finally, I subcribe quite a bit to the old eye-for-an-eye and golden rule ethos. If we do these things to our suspects, what will other countries (or, alas, our own country) do to us if we ourselves get caught in a case of mistaken identity. If I'm travelling abroad and become a suspect, I don't want to be tortured or treated the way we've started to treat suspects. We have lowered the bar of civility.

"In any conflict, the boundaries of behavior are defined by the party that values morality least." - Randy Wayne White

Jenn Nixon said...

Despite the type of fiction I read, and the shows I watch, I think of myself as a supporter of aggressive interrogation. If the injuries are minor, treatable with little mental trauma, I say go for it. One man's broken arm is another man's war medal.

Anonymous said...

One concern I have with torture (in addition to the morality/ethics of it all) is that sometimes the detainee will just say what he thinks his torturers want to hear--whether it's true or not. This leads to false confessions, false leads, wasted time, etc. Torture doesn't necessarily always lead to the truth.

David Terrenoire said...

Torture doesn't necessarily always lead to the truth.

And that's the real crux, isn't it.

Ask anyone who has been on either end of this and they'll tell you that the information is not reliable. This is part of John McCain's objection to redefining Article 3. When he was tortured he gave the North Vietnamese the defensive line of a football team.

I watched two Central American officers question an old man by standing him on the spoon(the safety) of a hand grenade. It wasn't painful. No limbs were broken. But the old man knew that when he got tired he would fall and be killed. That man would have told his interrogators anything, and he did.

I left that place a changed young man, changed in ways I don't wish on anyone.

So, practically, you can't rely on the intel and morally, you corrupt a nation.

That's a no-brainer to me.

Again, I direct you to The Atlantic, and Mark Bowden's fine The Drak Art of Interrogation. They published a piece last year on a Marine officer's way of interrogating Japanese POWs, kindly and symapthetically, that yielded solid intel from his priosoners and changed the way good military interrogators work. I can't recall the officer's name and I couldn't put my finger on the article, but it's worth a read if you're diligent.

We should never torture. Never. The cost is far too high and the payoff is spurious, at best.

David Terrenoire said...

Ah, I found the article I was looking for. It's here:

Really eye-opening and encouraging stuff, if we just allow ourselves to understand our shared humanity.

And here's the link to the Bowden piece:


You may have to be a subscriber to get these, I don't know, but if you do, and you're interested in the articles but not in subscribing, I could email the text of the articles.

It's worth it for the discussion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

If we use rhetoric to lay the foundation, there is a war on terror. Therefore, a suspected terrorist who is 'captured' is a prisoner of war. Therefore, the terms of The Geneva Convention apply... right?

Even if you disagree with my simplistic reasoning, torture is used by people who have no long-term vision. In the heat of conflict, when lives might be on the line, it can be understandable. I understand the desire to beat the crap out of a suspect you know is guilty, who has a child hidden somewhere, with the clock running out on how long the child can survive without food, etc. I do understand that.

Torturing people being held right now at Guantanamo Bay, for example, would be short-term thinking. As Barry has already argued - and David has supported - the information is unreliable at best.

But the repercussions of torture are certain. Unless the government never plans to release a single person who has been imprisoned there, individuals will leave with a deep hatred for their captors. Even if they weren't abused themselves, they will have seen others who have suffered.

Eliminating terror is about more than locking up all your suspected enemies, and I don't really know how to justify fighting a war on terror with torture, because torture is just a different way of terrorizing someone.

What you don't want is people being released who've developed such a deep hatred for their captors that they are hell bent on revenge. At the end of other conflicts, people had to learn how to forgive. One of the problems with this is that I don't see that happening. It's more like each side goes back to their corner until the bell rings and they start another round.

We have to think long term. When you (speaking generically, not pointing fingers) treat your prisoners so horribly, without conscious, without respect for the treaties and conventions the international community upholds, you can't ask those people to respect you, never mind forgive you. And they'll spread their experience to everyone they know, so harming one without cause could poison a thousand minds.

Barry Eisler said...

DKG, you raise another potential cost of torture: reciprocity. Sandra, you raise another: creating a permanent, my-mission-for-life-is-vengence jihadist.

Which reminds me of something I meant to ask: does anyone know why a government like Egypt's tortures and then releases a guy like Zawahiri? Leaving aside the ethics of the whole thing for the moment, it seems to me that if you're going to torture someone, it would be sensible to execute him afterward. And if you're Egypt, you've got the power, you've got the torturers... what were they thinking when they released Zawahiri afterward? Am I missing something?

Spy Scribbler said...

I saw a special on torture and interrogation a few months ago (details fuzzy--on that military or learning or discovery channel). I just remember an interrogator from the Gulf War talking about the rule that he could deprive the prisoner of sleep as long as the interrogator could stay awake, too.

The prisoner spilled, saying that if that was the worst the USA was going to do to him, then he was on the wrong side.

I think torture is one of those fine lines. IF it seems like it will work, and IF it seems like one can get reliable and crucial imformation, then I think it'd be stupid not to.

But who decides where that line is? I don't think guidelines and rules should do it; a case by case evaluation is necessary. That's further problematic because the decision often needs to be made quickly, so the decision has to be made by one or a few.

And then what if that one or few makes a mistake? No one can be perfect, and if we don't want someone to be immobilized by politics, then we need a little room to allow them little mistakes.

But then, when those mistakes cross that fine line ...

Who decides?

dkgoodman said...

Maybe Zawahiri was released as a warning to others. Defy us, and we torture you.

Wouldn't drugs, polygraphs or other tools work better and more reliably than torture?

Anonymous said...

What about the cost to the torturee? I don't think it's fun being tortured, and depending on the torture, it might as well lead to long-term effects (physical or mental). Plus, what if the torture victim is innocent?

In Germany, there was a case of a police chief having a kidnapper threatened with violence to save the kidnapped child. The kidnapper (who had admitted to having done it) led the police to where he'd hid the child, bit it had been dead already.

I can totally understand someone torturing someone else in such a case. What I still cannot understand is that the police chief has been reprimanded with a small fine, and that's it. If he'd said, "Yeah, I tortured him or at least threatened him with it. I knew I'd have to take my hat, but it was worth it on the off-chance of saving the child." – Bravo. But circumventing the law and then defending oneself despite acting as a symbol of the law – no way.

Me, I know I'm against sanctioned torture no matter what, but I can understand if people (not governments) fall back on torture during stress. But it's always a fall-back, never a step forward.

Anonymous said...

Torture bad, Interrogation good, Right? If there is curve that follows the efficacy of interrogation techniques from least intensity to highest, I think you would see that rising right up to the point where the interrogation technique crosses the line in to torture. At which point, I think we would see an inverse correlation between intensity of the torture, and the quality of information produced. All of which becomes more obscured by the sheer volume of information (true or false) that a suspect will say in order to get the torture to stop.

But how to draw that line? And who gets to draw it? Our goal is to get the highest quality intel, in the most expedient manner possible. To accomplish that, we need to give our interrogators a wide range of interrogation tools from which to choose. But everyone reacts differently to each of those tools, and for some that line might be crossed far earlier than for others. In other words, the definition of torture will vary. So I agree that it needs to be addressed on a case by case basis.

I think we need to be careful not to overly hamstring our guys in the field by tying them up in legal knots. I do think that we are far too quick and conservative in our efforts to define interrogation techniques as “torture”. We should be focusing our efforts on better training for interrogation, teaching them to be more efficient at “skillful questioning and psychological ploys”.

Merle Pribbenow, a 27 year veteran of the Agency (whose work, intelligence and skill I have known and respected for over 10 years) has some interesting thoughts on the use of terror in a National Journal piece from last year. If you want more detail direct from him, see this article he wrote in Studies in Intelligence. The above quote from Merle goes to the heart of the matter (like that Barry?) – that skillful interrogators will in the end provide a higher return on investment in quality information than will blunt force torture.

And it is just as important to realize that some individuals will always be able to resist the most skilled and/or brutal of interrogators. Remember Giles Corey, from the Salem witch trials in 1692? When they interrogators tried to get him to plead (for w/o a plea one way or the other they could not take him to trial), they subjected him to trial by pressing, in order to induce him to plead. He continued to refuse for two days, as ever increasing numbers of rocks were placed on him. He ultimately died without pleading, and his only words were “More weight”. There is a correlation between what you are willing to lose, and how likely you will be able to resist.

I do agree with Pribbenow, and others here, about the concerns around the cost of torture to those who apply it. It changes them individually.

As to the concern about reciprocity - I am less convinced. Is there anyone here that thinks the “other side” has not amply demonstrated their willingness to cross those lines well before it devolves to reciprocity? Have we not seen enough video footage and still photos of decapitations, including clear western non-combatants? They are not concerned with abiding by such niceties as the Geneva Convention.

David Terrenoire said...


Thanks for those excellent sources. This is from the second piece The Man In The Snow White Cell:

"There is nothing wrong with a little psychological intimidation, verbal threats, bright lights and tight handcuffs, and not giving a prisoner a soft drink and a Big Mac every time he asks for them. There are limits, however, beyond which we cannot and should not go if we are to continue to call ourselves Americans. America is as much an ideal as a place and physical torture of the kind used by the Vietnamese (North as well as South) has no place in it. Thus, extracting useful information from today's committed radicals--like Nguyen Tai in his day--remains a formidable challenge."

Well put.


Anonymous said...

I think you are skirting around the difference between torture and interrogation. We do not seem to have these qualms around, getting information in our judicial system (I'm not saying it works.) We make deals, we bore people sometimes a phone book is used for motivation, but we know when people cross the line. I hate to be so vague as to say "Torture, we know it when we see it" but it's true.

I would not pretend to speak at the learned level that some of your contributors discuss this subject. I don't know the players, I don't know the theories, but I do know that a nation that extracts information bu any means necessary is is walking to despotism. I know the information is important and I understand the thinking around intelligence but to alter doug p's opening line. Information Good. Torture Bad. We have to be a nation with a soul and I just can't see how torture helps anyones karma.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Which reminds me of something I meant to ask: does anyone know why a government like Egypt's tortures and then releases a guy like Zawahiri? Leaving aside the ethics of the whole thing for the moment, it seems to me that if you're going to torture someone, it would be sensible to execute him afterward.

Good question. The only reasons I can see to release someone are:

1. They are so popular you risk making them a martyr with their death. I'm not sure I can think of many examples of this, but if killing someone popular unites the people against the leadership, it's always possible the leadership will be overthrown.

Of course, it's also possible the people will be run down by tanks.

2. If they believe they've broken the person, so that he goes home a shell of a man and sends a chilling message to others, acting as a deterrent.

Beyond that, tossing ethics out of the equation, it doesn't make much sense to torture someone and release them. You need only turn your eyes north of the border right now to hear of a very controversial case that involved torture and has undermined the credibility of the RCMP, and the victim is becoming something of a national hero.

JD Rhoades said...

One argument against torture that I've I've found compelling is that put forward by some members of the military who look beyond the immediate conflict. In response to the argument about how "we're facing a ruthless enemy who tortures people so we should do the same," they point out that this is not likely to be the last war we'll ever fight. If we designate torture as a legitimate means of waging war, the next enemy will regard it as legitimate as well.

JT Ellison said...

Barry, I love reading your blog because while I may not agree with you all of the time, you make me think. Life is about assessment, and I reassess ever time I open this page. Thanks for always being thought provoking.

JT Ellison said...

I love reading your blog because you make me think. I may not agree with you all the time, but life is about assessing, and I reassess every time I open this page. Thanks for being so thought provoking.
PS. I vote we don't go the hotel route, but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

"Does torture work? That is, does it lead to effective intelligence? I'm not sure. I've never tortured someone and I've never been tortured. But my guess is that the answer is, it depends."
-- Barry

",,, skillful interrogators will in the end provide a higher return on investment in quality information than will blunt force torture."
-- Doug P.

In the old days, before the knotheads in the Bush administration decided to "legalize" torture, thereby obviating the possibility any of them could be prosecuted for sanctioning it's use, in the sub-terrainian domain of profesional interrogators there existed an unwritten, unsanctioned set of guidelines on the use of torture which experienced generations of interrogators would passed on to the next generation in the bullshit sessions following regular training sessions:

1. If interrogators have the luxury of time, Q&A sessions based on deception, patience, and gaining rapport with the subject will generally yield better intelligence than torture.

2. If the interrogators have one critical question to ask the subject, a question that must be answered NOW... physical torture can be effective.

A technical discussion: how to torture?

The answer to this begins with our understanding that we can torture our prisoners either psychologically [cold, sleep deprivation, water-boarding, etc.], or we can inflict physical pain.

Psychological torture by it's very nature takes time to work. The goal is to wear down the spirit of resistance in your subject by subjecting him or her to abuse persisting for several days, or even longer.

Psychological torture *is* most effective if your goal, for example, is to convince your subject to sign a public confession that they have committed war crimes, or to appear before journalists on TV dutifully mouthing your propaganda line for their tape recorders and cameras. Refer to North Korea and "brainwashing", or public trials during the era of the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China to find excellent examples of the use of psychological torture for propaganda purposes.

However, if you need to know before tomorrow morning where the IED is buried, and how it's going to be triggered... then physical torture may be the best option available to interrogators.

The goal of physical torture is to create the overwhelming fear of future pain in the mind of the subject. To achieve end this we begin the torture session perhaps with a ringing slap, after an interval continue it with a smashing blow [usually to the face], and conclude the session with a demonstration of profoundly shocking pain.

Before and between the first two steps -- slap and blow -- the interrogators must carefully allow sufficient minutes to pass for their subjects to recover their will to resist, to become defiant again, despite the fact that the subjects may be spitting broken teeth or bleeding profusely from their shattered noses.

Then the interrogator must suddenly, savagely, melodramatically inflict a truly gruesome injury on their subject. Causing a horrific open [compound] fracture to a major arm or leg bone usually suffices, such fractures being defined as ones where "... the skin has been pierced by a bone fragment."


It is not a simple matter to inflict this kind of injury, but let's skip the details on that, shall we, and instead continue our discussion at the theoretical level?

Inflicting a compound fracture on your subject immediately causes shock. Thus the interrogator must now act quickly. Where the previous pace of the interrogation allowed time for the subject to recover him or herself between the slaps and punches, now the interrogators must not allow the subject any time to reflect.

The apparently enraged interrogator must explain to the subject that the incredible sight before their eyes -- their own shattered radius sticking out of their forearm -- that's pain! What they felt before was nothing! What they are seeing now... is the sure and certain promise of what will come... if the subject does not answer the question.

Second, the interrogators must demand the answer to their question again and again, allowing the subject only seconds to answer it.

Some demonstration of resolve on the part of the interrogator during these moments is useful in magnifying the subject's fear of future pain... for example, grasping the exposed bone between his or her finger and thumb and wiggling it whenever the interrogator wishes to remind the subject of his or her pain.

Since inflicting an open fracture on the subject will generally thow them into shock, which dulls their perception of pain, such reminders become necessary if the interrogator feels their subject is close to giving up their secrets, but still has sufficient resolve to try to negotiatiate an end to the torture by offering up a half-truth, or only a piece of the whole answer to the question asked.

Whether or not the subject gives up the intelligence they posses, the interrogation session should end within 10-15 minutes of inflicting the open fracture. Now the subject should be given immediate medical attention.

Ideally, however, all necessary medical procedures should be performed using aneasthesia which allows the subject to remain conscious and aware of what's happening to them. The medical personnel attending to the subject's injuries might be able to elicit the required information from the subject by posing as his or her "friends".

If the subject has not provided the required intelligence to the interrogators following all of that, the interrogation must be deemed a failure.

Future interrogations of this subject should involve a different interrogator team. Their strategy with their injured subjects should be based on gaining rapport by commiserating with them over how badly "the others" hurt them.

One last point: it is best that the interrogation techniques I have described above should remain both illegal and unsanctioned. Knowledge of those facts will act as necessary inhibitors on interrogation teams, and cause them to hesistate before resorting to such extreme methods... without first carefully analyzing the particular circumstances and goals of their interrogation.

All the best...