Does Torture “Work”?

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I’ve been asked to write about this subject for some time, and by happenstance, I came to write this today…

Nell Lancaster had a very good posting at her blog the other day, Torture: It’s not about “intelligence gathering”:

One of the most persistent and discouraging themes that crops up in discussions of torture is the question of whether it “works” or not. The people engaging this question make a fatally wrong assumption: that the goal of torturers is the same as that of legitimate interrogators — to get reliable information useful for active, circumscribed military operations or police investigations.

But torture does something else altogether, and is designed to do so: it extracts false confessions. These confessions, along with the agony of the torture itself, serve the goals of limitless, lawless “war”: to humiliate and break opponents, to divide them from supporters, to terrify those not actively in opposition into staying inactive, and, most importantly, to justify the operations of the dirty war within which torture takes place: commando raids, assassinations, spying, kidnapping, secret and/or indefinite (and unreviewable) detention, and further torture.

I think Nell makes some very good points, and they are especially applicable to the use of U.S. torture during the period we have lived and still living through, beginning with the large-scale revival of the U.S. torture program after 9/11.

However, I thought there was more to say about the issue of “false confessions,” and on the issue of the so-called efficacy of torture in general. What follows is my comment to Nell’s posting at A Lovely Promise (her blog) (links within have been added):

Re the torture argument.

The U.S. government spent serious money and decades thinking about and experimenting upon torture and other forms of controlling human behavior.

I think the issue is falsely separated into orthogonal realms where one supposedly tortures to gain information, OR one tortures to terrorize or gain control (this would include the idea of eliciting false confessions, as well).

It would be wrong to suppose that torture does not sometimes occur as an attempt to gain information. I worked in therapy with a former Central American insurgent who was captured, and then tortured to reveal the names of his comrades. The poor fellow did reveal names under torture, and suffered tremendous guilt as a result (and hence had come to see me).

I have also worked with torture survivors who clearly were tortured as a matter of social control and terror, and had no identifiable information or connection that could feasibly make them a possible source of intelligence. (I remember one case particularly well of a man from Egypt.)

I also have worked with some who were tortured and coerced to make false confessions.

I think that like all human behavioral and psychosocial phenomenon, the desire to isolate  motivations into identifiable causal factors betrays our understanding of the situation.

The human psyche is internally divided, determining reality based on a complex set of assumptions, identifications with others (or with entities or causes), and a large retinue of defensive mental maneuvers to ward off all kinds of anxiety, including the anxiety of not knowing or not belonging.

The result is a psycho-social-emotional stew of motivational factors that defies any easy kind of categorization, and that is what I believe we have when we look at the purely human phenomena of torture.

It gets even more complicated when we look at the question of “false confessions.” The latter can often be a mixture of fact and fiction. They can also be rendered for use in very complicated counter-intelligence schemes, so that it’s not clear what kind of information was desired or not, and by whom.

The classic example of the latter is the paradigm case of the U.S. torture experience: the “confessions” by U.S. Air Force officers captured by the Chinese and North Koreans, who confessed to operating aircraft used in a secret U.S. program to use biological weapons during the Korean War.

Were these confessions true or false? If you believe torture always produces garbage, then it must be false. But empirically, it is not true that torture produces only bad intel. When CIA torturers have discussed their results publicly, as in Biderman’s The Manipulation of Human Behavior, they make it clear that best results for accuracy happen in a thin band between normal interrogation and resistance and overt brutality or overuse of psychological techniques which collapse the mind of the victim.

In the case of the captured airmen, the U.S. denied any such use of bio weapons, despite the findings of an independent commission to study the issue. Only much later, in the early 21st century, have some legitimate historical examinations found that there may have been some truth in the airmen’s confessions. (See Endicott and Hagerman, The U.S. and Biological Warfare.)

To conclude, it is not a question of the efficacy of torture to provide information, as you ably point out. The motives for torture, however, are complex, interconnected and over-determined, so that every instance of its use must be looked at in its cultural-political-historical context to see to what degree one causal aspect played a more or less significant role as against a number of other possible causes.

A final thought: by entering into the argument as to whether or not torture “works”, we move farther away from the primary point, which is that torture is unacceptable and illegal no matter what the reason or the cause. Period.

Otherwise, it would be as if we were still arguing about cannibalism, with one group arguing whether or not it really provided nutrition or not.

For further thoughts, one can see an earlier essay I wrote on this topic, Some Thoughts on Utilitarian Arguments Against Torture

Also posted at Invictus and Daily Kos

6 comments

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    • Valtin on April 11, 2009 at 2:40 am
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    Except Chacounne over at Daily Kos made the point that torture is used to terrorize entire populations. I think I implied agreement on that point, which Nell seemed to be making, but it’s worth noting here that it’s a very important aspect of the current use of torture by the U.S. and Britain.

    Another commenter over there made me look up Naomi Klein’s excellent article on the same subject, Torture’s Dirty Secret: It Works.

  1. How insideous is that?  

  2. on the subject of torture.  While I have not scanned through each of the comments here, I have some thoughts (which may have been expressed here — DKos) about the use of torture.  I view it as being somewhat on the scale of a “rapist” — a rapist rapes not so much for the sex involved, but for the charge he derives from a sense of power and control.  For those who authorize torture and for those who execute torture, I think the same dynamics are probably involved.  As concerns our very own brand of torture, there is also the “porn” or sexual aspect to it — “whips and chains, nudity,” whatever, so you have total degradation to the victim of torture, as well as the power and control factors prevalent.  “You are my subject, you will obey me” mentality.  A “bully” mentality that probably derives pleasure from the ability to inflict pain on others.    

    As to address the benefits derived from torture — history has shown over time that it usually produces nothing meritorious in the way of information as to be helpful.  And, quite frankly, if you or I were being tortured, mentally or physically, over and over again, wouldn’t we say just about anything to stop the pain?  

    I recall a very interesting NPR segment about a year ago, with a gentleman by the name of Cohen, as I recollect, who, after World War II became an “interrogator” of sorts to find or expose Nazi criminals.  He said blatantly that torture has never worked, would never work!.  Even though he was in pursuit of persons after the war, his tactics were totally humane — he spent much time getting to know the person(s) whom he was pursuing, and ultimately, they became “friends” of sorts and the intimate knowledge needed was gained.

    And, in the final analysis, as Valtin points out, torture is and has long been described as a war crime, and rightfully so!

    It is sad that this country has sunk to the lowest level of humanity, for which we must find a way to have it addressed.  If not, WE will, thereby, define ourselves to the world!

    “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    • Arctor on April 11, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    is as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. That’s why it is imperative for Americans to bring accountability to those who authorized and perpetrated torture against detainees in Guantanamo, Baghram, Abu Graib and the CIA black sites; to not do so allows the devil in the back door and sets us up for domestic torture when the circumstances lead us to it. That’s why I find it more and more difficult to keep walking down this primrose path with Obama and Holder. Both are far too intelligent not to see this problem, what does that tell us?

    Also, and as long as on this site as opposed to DKOS for example, it appears acceptable to don the tin-foil hat (another form of control and marginalization, to be discussed another time, huh?)…let’s admit that torture works extremely well at producing reinforcing information from false and exaggerated confessions which can be used to further the policy aims from Black Flag operations. So just suppose the “unlikely” possibility that 9/11 was a Black Flag operation to further aims of war in Iraq and a never-ending, checkbook always open, war on Terror, How supportive it would be to have an ongoing stream of Islamic terrorists confessing their hideous plans. Even a degenerate moron like Dick Cheney/David Addington could figure that out, no?

  3. Valtin,

    Again a great diary.

    One thing that constantly bothers me is, as you say, the discussions over, whether it works or not, is the timing right to investigate, whether a truth & reconciliation commission is needed, moving the proper action further & further away from the reality that torture was committed & that`s it`s always wrong.

    My subject line refers to your apt analogy  

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