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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Torture: You Get What You Ask For


I haven’t yet seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty, but I hear it’s very good. The movie has stirred up controversy because it apparently contains scenes showing terrorist suspects being tortured, which has renewed the discussion about whether torture should be used by the United States as a means of getting information in the war against terrorism.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’d like to put aside any moral objections and focus on more practical reasons why torture should or should not be considered by the United States, against our enemies. 

There are some who maintain that the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorists like Abu Zubaydah and Kalid Sheik Mohammed eventually produced important information that was used to kill and capture other terrorists.  

Professional interrogators in the FBI, as well as our armed forces, say that torture is an ineffective means of getting accurate information. They tend to hold the opinion that torture –inflicting pain, suffering or fear of death– seldom yields truthful answers. People will say anything to stop the torture but the resulting information is notoriously unreliable.

According to experts, the most effective way to get information from a suspect –even a hostile one– is to talk to them and build a rapport with them over an extended period of time. Over time, they will be more likely to give you truthful information. However, torture is often successful for achieving one specific goal. That is, to get someone to confess to something they did not do.

MccainCase in point; when John McCain was tortured in Viet Nam, he answered his interrogators’ questions in order to get the torture to stop, but much of the information he gave was false. Yet McCain admits that they did ultimately break him. Through the use of torture, they got him to confess to being a war criminal and to denounce his country on videotape. So in McCain’s case, torture did not yield good information for his captors, but it did succeed in getting a false confession.

Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator who questioned Al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the most valuable information gained from interrogating Zubaydah was not produced by using water-boarding or other harsh methods, rather it was his use of standard interrogation methods that yielded the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the 9/11 attack mastermind. But he said when the CIA’s contractors used “enhanced interrogation”, including water-boarding, Zubaydah stopped talking.  Read more about Ali Soufan here.

Aside from the fact that it produces notoriously bad information, there are several other issues we can examine relating to torture.

When we use torture to obtain intelligence, we are clearly telling the rest of the world, including our enemies, that torture is an acceptable means to gain information. This means in future wars, American POWs will be more likely to be tortured.

It’s well known that in World War II soldiers from Germany and Japan were more inclined to surrender to American troops than to the Soviet Union because they knew we treated our prisoners better than the Russians did. Since they decided to surrender instead of fighting to the death, fewer Americans died than otherwise would have. But if we develop a reputation for torturing our prisoners, it’s reasonable to conclude that enemies in future wars will be more likely to fight to the death rather than surrender to American troops.

Perhaps equally important, torture is illegal in all circumstances according to U.S. law, international law, multiple treaties and the Geneva Conventions. Information obtained through torture is not admissible in court which makes it harder to prosecute terrorists. Judges are often forced to set suspects free if the evidence against them is tainted by the use of torture.

Anyone who supports “enhanced interrogation” would be hard pressed to find any good reasons to justify its use.  

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