FSG Blog
December 11, 2014

A Purely Cognitive Argument Against “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”

Let’s say you are a patriotic American. You hate terrorists and want to prevent another terrorist attack from occurring on American soil. You don’t like the idea of torturing people, but if it could possibly help, hey, maybe we should be doing it, right?

If it did help to stop terrorism, that could be an argument for it. If there really is a “ticking time bomb” scenario, and mistreating someone could cause him or her to cough up the plan and save 100,000 people, then it could, in theory, be a very moral choice to torture.

But let’s play this out in the actual world faced by military and intelligence interrogators.

A Thought Experiment

Let’s say you have about 100 terrorist-suspect prisoners and you have let’s say around 100 intelligence officers. Maybe two of the detainees actually know something that could be of value in preventing a plot from being carried out. The rest either are not highly enough placed in the terrorist organization, or they have, like Osama bin Laden before 9/11, not been told the details of exactly what, when and where, in order to maintain operational “cell” security.

So you question all of them. None of them tell you anything, because 98 of them don’t know anything, and the two that do know aren’t telling. So they all pretty much look the same to you after conventional questioning.

So you decide to use “enhanced interrogation techniques.” For shorthand, let’s call it what it is – torture.[1] Now, 98 of the prisoners still know nothing. But a fairly large percentage of them are going to talk, just to make the torture stop. Let’s say 50% of them talk; it could be 40%, it could be 90%, but let’s say half. Now, the two who actually know something useful are probably not among the people who talk, because they are probably among the tougher ones. And if they DO talk, they probably, like American service members, will have a story that they have been given specifically to tell after pressure has been applied, to throw the enemy off the scent and delay any potential ultimate breakdown.

Now you have a problem. Because you don’t know who actually knows something, you need to deploy 50 squads of intelligence officers to chase down 50 stories, probably none of which are valid. This might require every intelligence officer you have. Meanwhile, if there IS a plot, it’s still moving along while you do this.

So you chase down your fifty leads. You probably can’t disprove them all at once, so it’s going to take a while to figure out they are all false. But you probably have a bunch that are obviously made up. What do you do?

Well, history tells us that human beings in a position of power who are misled get angry, or at least become determined to deter future wasting of their time. They also tend to become convinced that people who lie are covering something up.

So they go back to the prisoners who lied, most of whom were saying anything in order to make the questioning stop, and they torture them again. And the results will continue to be the prisoner saying anything in order for the torture to stop. And that will produce an endless stream of bogus information that must be run down, wasting further scarce intelligence resources. Meanwhile the actual in-the-know detainees have either refused to cooperate or have given you a tangled account that contains enough facts to keep your intel people running around pointlessly.

Now is it possible for torture to elicit what is called “actionable intelligence?” Sure, it’s theoretically possible. But the self-selection of the toughest nuts for the highest terrorist jobs makes this prospect unlikely. And the inevitable flood of “false positives” will fairly effectively camouflage the actual truth. And this effect is made far more problematic by the most harmful effect of torture – the effect on the interrogators themselves.

Torture Changes Minds – of Torturers

No, I am not talking about the effects of torture on the interrogators’ fragile psyches. Others have talked about that – most recently an Abu Ghraib interrogator in the New York Times Wednesday.2 I am talking about a different, and in intelligence terms, far more dangerous effect. The individual interrogators will be strongly affected by having tortured to get information that has turned out to be useless, and will find it distasteful in the extreme to admit to themselves that they have tortured for no reason. (The idea that they might have tortured a perfectly innocent person, as demonstrably has occurred many, many times since 2001, will be even more repugnant and psychologically necessary to repress.)

In addition, and more straightforwardly, the interrogator will not want to appear to be bad at his job in front of his superiors. So the interrogator will be strongly tempted to torture the same useless prisoner again, and probably more forcefully. The interrogator may become personally invested in proving that “his” or “her” detainee is the key to unlocking the next 9/11. The distasteful alternative is to tell one’s superiors that the interrogator has tortured for nothing. Many things in the cultures of the military and intelligence services militate against that “can’t do,” legally problematic, personally demoralizing and possibly career-ending statement.

So the rounds of useless “enhanced interrogation” keep going, with, absolutely predictably, almost no productive result. And the lack of result is used as an excuse to double and triple and quadruple down. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the famous 9/11 plotter, was waterboarded 183 times. We must ask ourselves, if waterboarding is so productive of good intelligence, so terrifying to prisoners, why was it necessary to do it to this man 183 times? After 30 simulated drownings, clearly he was not cooperating adequately. Do we really think that after 153 more times he was going to prevent the next 9/11?

In the event, “KSM” in 2007, four years after the waterboarding, confessed to having masterminded not only 9/11 but also almost every subsequent terror attack or attempt against the United States and its allies– the attempted Shoe Bomber incident, the Bali nightclub attack, and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. One wonders whether an organization so devoted to cell structure, where one person would not know more than the bare minimum needed to carry out attacks (again, Osama bin Laden on video told friends he had been surprised when the 9/11 attacks took place, because he was kept out of the loop of actual operational planning), this one person that the CIA had happened to waterboard 183 times just happened to be in on all the most famous al Qaeda attacks and attempts. One might also wonder whether 200 waterboardings might have elicited vital information about the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping.

None Dare Use the T Word

It is clear that the people now defending “enhanced interrogation techniques” are deeply invested in them psychologically, and it is easy to see why. For if they admit that they might have been wrong, where does it end? But their constant use of euphemism, their insistence that what was done was NOT “torture” (400 hours of sleep deprivation – FOUR HUNDRED – almost three WEEKS without sleep, is not “torture” in their opinion) tells us something about what they really think deep down. The final proof is that almost none of those in Congress or the Intelligence Community who now insist that the Senate majority report was a partisan attack, and that “EIT” was not torture, now will say that “EIT” should be reinstated. If they thought it was useful and moral, wouldn’t they be demanding that it should be restored? Of course they would, and rightly so, if that was their belief. But no one who remains in a position of authority is making this demand; only those who were formerly in the chain of command and remain closely identified with the program, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, but who no longer have responsibility for such matters, have made such statements – and even they insist that “EIT” was not torture.

Part of the ultimate shame of this entire affair is that other interrogation methods, not using torture at all, actually WORKED. The FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, merely by building rapport with detainees and then letting them know that he knew certain facts (real ones) that they had not suspected he knew, caused hardened al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah to give up all sorts of actionable intelligence, including the identities of many other al Qaeda members. But Soufan was abruptly taken off that interrogation by the CIA, and the Verschaerfte Vernehmung began, under the supervision, in part, of psychologists who had never interrogated anyone; and the prisoner never gave up another bit of useful information, according to Soufan.

Again, we do not even have to get into any moral question at all. The ultimate problem with torture may not be what it does to the detainees; it may be the way it changes the interrogators. It certainly may coarsen them, but far more importantly from an intelligence standpoint, it also tends to make them believe ONLY people who have been tortured, and makes them disbelieve those who have given real information without being tortured, even though a dispassionate analysis might conclude that the opposite makes far more sense.

At the end of the day, torture actually may cause us to know LESS than we knew before, because it causes us to “know” so much that is simply not true, and to “know” it with a false certainty grounded in deep psychological denial. So even if you are a patriotic American with no love for terrorists, and little regard for the rights of detainees you think are probably guilty of something, it is this that should persuade you. Standard non-coercive interrogation may not prevent a future attack. But torture will tie your entire intelligence system in knots. If this analysis is anywhere close to being correct, a more pro-terrorist path to obscuring truth is difficult to imagine.

[1] We called waterboarding torture when we prosecuted Japanese POW camp officers for using it on Allied captives in the Second World War. Also, the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” is a fairly literal translation from the original German Verschaerfte Vernehmung, a phrase coined by Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller for the kind of treatment meted out by his organization to uncooperative prisoners. If you are for torture and think it works, then don’t be afraid to drop the euphemisms and call it what it is. If you really think it is moral, you should stand up for it proudly.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/opinion/the-torture-report-reminds-us-of-what-america-was.html

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2 thoughts on “A Purely Cognitive Argument Against “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques””

  1. To say nothing of the
    To say nothing of the cultures of retaliation and resentment torture breeds. It would be difficult to single out torture as the sole cause, but it’s certainly among those things we’ve foolishly engaged in in response to 9/11 that have been among the most successful recruitment tools for terrorist organizations. (Leaders in many countries, ironically including some that indulge in torture of their own citizens – such as Pakistan – have used our “enhanced interrogation techniques” in their own propaganda.)

    Let’ face it: we all love the idea of KSM getting waterboarded or sodomized with a broomstick, but the fact is the payoff is minimal (if that), while the cost is ridiculously high.

  2. One final irony of the “EIT”
    One final irony of the “EIT” program occurs to me. The CIA and other defenders/minimizers of what was done post-2001 repeatedly have told the media that what was done to the detainees in no way was different from the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training received by American service members in preparation for possible capture. Let’s dispense for a moment with the obvious truth that no American service member was left to die of hypothermia while chained in a cell, or was kept awake for 400 hours. SERE training itself was designed to allow Americans to resist Soviet or Chinese or other communist bloc torture mechanisms. These in turn were generally designed not to elicit “actionable intelligence,” but to push detainees into false confessions of their “crimes.” So the entire “EIT” program, ostensibly used in order to get good solid facts, seems to have been distantly based on a program specifically designed to produce false confessions from “Yankee Air Pirates” for the television cameras. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who were trying to keep America safe after 2001, and I certainly do not put myself forward as an expert on this. I do question what we could ever have hoped to get out of this other than a lot of chasing our own tails, and I do find it annoying as an American to have to listen to the Chinese and Russians and Iranians lecture us on human rights, and to have to say to myself, “I guess they have a point, don’t they.” If I as an American rooting for America am forced to that conclusion, what is the response in India and Brazil and Indonesia? Again, without even getting into the essential morality of the program, which I will leave to others, from a pure policy standpoint it seems a huge price to pay for close to zero benefit.


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