Torture and other forms of official cruelty are illegal, under US or international law, under any circumstances. The ban is absolute. And a range of religious leaders, including the Pope, have said repeatedly that torture is unacceptable.
Yet in the post September 11 world, there has been increased public debate about whether or not torture is effective as an interrogation method. This debate has played itself out in policy debates in Washington, the news media and through popular culture – in movies and on television. Even as various opinions have been expressed in the public conversation, the views of experienced interrogators – those who have interviewed suspects over many years and many conflicts – has not budged: they say that torture is ineffective — because it is unreliable, because it produces false information, because it can incapacitate suspects and muddle memories, and because it can make suspects less willing to cooperate.
And while these experienced interrogators are certain about the mistake of using torture, some of those who make policy seem to have doubts, despite never being in an interrogation booth.
Political leaders across the spectrum often backpedal when asked if torture should be used in emergency situations – the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario. Last fall, Senator Hillary Clinton said: “The decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the President … alternative interrogation techniques” might be employed.
A few weeks before that, Vice-President Dick Cheney told a radio interviewer: a “dunk in the water” is a “no-brainer” if it can save lives.
The American public seems to agree: in a 2005 Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 61 percent of Americans agreed torture is justified at least on rare occasions.
All of these views are wrongheaded, proceeding as they do from the mistaken belief that (1) the ticking time bomb scenario is common and (2) that torture provides reliable information. Fear, of course, is at the root of these assumptions – fear of another attack, fear of the enemy. This fear is only exacerbated by the spate of television shows – shows such as 24, Lost, The Wire, and Alias– that portray scenes of torture during interrogations, scenes that are always emergency situations and where torture always works.
These shows are intended as entertainment. But their impact is anything but fictional: Interrogators report that junior soldiers have imitated the interrogation techniques they have seen on television – on the notion that they work. Military academies report that Jack Bauer, the hero of Fox’s 24, is one of their biggest training challenges. And these shows – and the new spike in torture scenes — reinforce how Americans, including policy-makers, think about torture: as necessary in certain situations.
Policy makers, citizens and Hollywood writers should consider the following reasons torture and cruel treatment are not only unreliable as information gathering techniques, but also why the support of any policy that condones torture will make Americans less safe:
1. Torture and cruel treatment yield unreliable results.
No systematic study has ever shown that the infliction of torture or coercion elicits reliable information or actionable intelligence. According to the U.S. Army’s own field manual on interrogation, published in September 2006, torture “is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the [human intelligence] collector wants to hear.” As veteran FBI interrogator Joe Navarro put it, “the only thing torture guarantees you is pain.”
2. There is no way to keep the exception from becoming the rule.
America’s recent experience, and the longer experience of democratic allies like Israel and Britain, have shown, without a doubt, that efforts to allow torture only under limited circumstances will fail. Rather than limiting the use of harsh interrogation techniques to a few cases, exemptions for torture and cruel treatment very quickly allow them to become routine. Of great concern is President Bush’s assertion, as recently as September 6, 2006, that the CIA may continue to use “alternative interrogation methods” on terrorism suspects, which despite legal prohibition could again become widespread in U.S. military operations leading to more abuse.
3. Torture and cruel treatment put U.S. troops at risk.
Not only does cruel treatment practiced by Americans undermine the United States’ role as a champion of human rights, it also puts captured Americans at greater risk of torture and limits the U.S. government’s ability to criticize or punish such treatment. As Senator John McCain, a former prisoner-of-war, said: “While our intelligence personnel in Abu Ghraib may have believed that they were protecting U.S. lives by roughing up detainees to extract information, they have had the opposite effect. Their actions have increased the danger to American soldiers, in this conflict and in future wars.”
4. Torture and cruel treatment undermine American missions overseas.
Winning the “hearts and minds” of communities around the world is a key objective in combating violence against civilians. But as the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual emphasizes: “Any human rights abuses or legal violations committed by U.S. forces quickly become known throughout the local populace and eventually around the world. . . and undermine both short- and long-term [counterinsurgency] efforts.” No matter how hard you try to keep bad things secret they always have a way of getting out to the public.
5. Torture and cruel treatment damage intelligence collection.
Cruel treatment leads to a loss of confidence and respect within the communities where U.S. forces operate and that loss of respect makes it harder for interrogators to cultivate strong ties with a local population — which is essential to securing intelligence. Cruel treatment undermines rapport with the subject that is critical to successful interrogation. Moreover, if cruel treatment is an option, it leads to lazy interrogators who do not take the time to focus on understanding the environment where they are assigned.
6. Torture and cruel treatment make it harder to get cooperation from allies.
Security experts agree that international cooperation is essential to effectively addressing the threat of terrorism today. As the bipartisan 9/11 Commission said: “The closer our detention policies can be to international law, the closer can be our cooperation with international partners on other aspects of counterterrorism strategy.” U.S. resistance to embracing the universal prohibition against torture and cruel treatment – under all circumstances – has made securing this cooperation much harder.
7. When torture and cruel treatment yield misinformation, the cost of pursuing the wrong lead can be enormous.
The actual case of captured suspect Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi is instructive. After reportedly being subject to interrogations including waterboarding and being doused in cold water and left to stand naked, al Libbi told his U.S. interrogators that Iraq had trained al Qaeda to use biochemical weapons. It came out later that al Libbi had fabricated the story simply to stop the torture. By the time al Libbi recanted, the United States had already used his “information” as part of the case for going to war with Iraq. The al Libbi case is especially shocking because he was originally cooperative and accurate with his military interrogators, who treated him with respect, but later lied to CIA interrogators when he was flown to Egypt and tortured.
8. When you create a “ticking time bomb” exception, every situation becomes a ticking time bomb scenario
Because the ticking time bomb is a powerful idea, it is regularly cited as the reason coercive interrogation is needed; the prevalence of the use of this scenario on television contributes to the false idea that such a scenario is common. Experienced interrogators say that soldiers in the field rarely if ever can know, for certain, that a suspect has accurate information about an imminent threat and that torture or cruel treatment would be the best technique to elicit that information. Rather, interrogators say that torture has the possibility of incapacitating suspects – making them pass out, go into cardiac arrest – or even kill them. In these cases, the information will never be obtained.