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Facts on Torture

Myth: not using torture makes America look weak. Fact: using torture makes America less safe. See more frequently asked questions about torture.

Facts matter. Human Rights First, along with dozens of interrogators, intelligence professionals, retired generals, and admirals, know that torture is ineffective at gaining actionable intelligence. Interrogation techniques that respect human rights have a proven track record of success at getting information out of terrorism suspects.

Frequently Asked Questions on Torture

Does Torture Work?
Terrorist Groups use Torture. Why Shouldn't the United States?
Shouldn’t we do anything to stop terrorist attacks, including using torture?
Is torture illegal? Can those laws be changed?
Does not using torture make America look weak?

Does Torture Work?

  • Experienced interrogators and intelligence experts say that using torture and abuse in interrogations is not an effective way to elicit reliably truthful information. According to a statement by 25 former interrogators and intelligence professionals from the U.S. military and other federal agencies (including the CIA, FBI, DEA, and NCIS), “The application of psychological, emotional, and/or physical pressure can force a victim of torture to say anything just to end the painful experience. The challenge of interrogation is not ‘to make people talk’; instead, it is to obtain precise and credible information.”[1]

  • Neurological science also shows that torture and abuse are ineffective ways to interrogate prisoners. In fact, according to neuroscience professor Shane O’Mara, abusive interrogation techniques (both physical and psychological) can “compromise memory, mood, and cognitive function,” which are essential to eliciting accurate information.[2]

  • Though torture advocates have touted the “successes” from the CIA using abusive interrogation after 9/11, the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA interrogation and detention shows that the tactics were much less effective than the CIA claimed, and did not result in unique information that stopped attacks and saved lives.[3]

Terrorist Groups use Torture. Why Shouldn't the United States?

  • Humane treatment of prisoners and detainees is a fundamental part of American ideals and values. Abandoning these values to sink to the level of terrorist groups would diminish U.S. standing in the world, and reduce American influence on human rights, military, and counterterrorism issues. As 42 retired Generals and Admirals wrote, “Torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture of any kind.”[4]

  • Torture provides no strategic advantage, and abuses by the United States provide enemies with a rallying point around which to recruit new followers. During the Iraq War, the primary reason for foreign fighters to come fight U.S. troops was the “perceived U.S. abuses of and lack of due process for detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”[5]

Shouldn’t we do anything to stop terrorist attacks, including using torture?

  • As noted above, effective interrogation does not involve torture or abuse. Getting accurate information from detainees is the most certain way to disrupt plots and stop attacks. The often-cited “ticking time bomb” situation is no exception, and resorting to torture in these cases causes “the abuse [to] spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner [becomes] the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb … the rare exception fast becoming the rule,” according to former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Charles C. Krulak and former U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Joseph P. Hoar.[6]

Is torture illegal? Can those laws be changed?

  • Torture and abusive interrogation tactics are illegal under both U.S. law and international law. Torture is prohibited under federal law, as are lesser forms of detainee abuse such as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. On his second day in office, President Obama issued an executive order strengthening the ban on torture and limiting interrogators to the tactics in the Army Field Manual. And in 2015, the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment was passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote, solidifying the ban laid out in the president's order.[7]

  • Even if those laws are changed, U.S. interrogators are still bound by the Constitution – courts have cited the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments as protecting suspects from torture. And in international law, the United States is bound by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which bar torture and abuse of prisoners.[8]

Does not using torture make America look weak?

  • Experienced interrogators and military leaders know that using torture makes the country less safe and risks besmirching American values and ideals. In a letter to the Republican and Democratic National Committees, more than 60 of the country’s most respected retired Generals and Admirals wrote, “We have diverse political affiliations and opinions, but we are in firm and unanimous agreement that the United States is strongest when it remains faithful to its core values.”[9] A policy rooted in logic, experience, and principle is a strong policy.