The Unreliability of Information Garnered From Torture

October 15, 2006 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Afghanistan, American politics, Iraq, King George, Military, Torture, War on Terror | 3 Comments

Even with all the evidence against it, so many Americans still feel justified in interrogating suspects with torture or “alternative set of procedures” as Bush likes to call them. It is time to show even more evidence of the unreliability of information garnered from torture.

So much can be said that is negative about torture that you really do have to wonder why so many still feel comfortable enough to allow it to be legalized in America. Anne Applebaum says it best:

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.

Perhaps it’s reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of “toughness” we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well.

There are several justifications for the use of torture. 1. They deserve it. 2. The ticking-bomb scenario. 3. They have information we need. 4. They’ve lost the privilege of legal protections due to our labeling them as “terrorists.”

Only one of these actually deals with any possible moral justification, and that is number 3, they have information we need. Number 1—they deserve it—implies that we torture them as punishment. Our Constitution bans “cruel and unusual punishment” for crimes, so the use of torture simply for the reason that they deserve it fails to find legal, or moral justification.

Number 2 is the tricky one, and deserves some discussion. This is tied to number 3—they have information we need—but is time sensitive. Let’s go through a scenario. You suspect a bomb is about to go off somewhere in New York City. You’ve somehow captured a terrorist who you think knows something about the attack. You do not know a number of things. First off, you do not know if this person you captured actually has any information about the plot. You only suspect he does. Secondly, you do not know if, indeed, there is a bomb soon to go off. You only hear chatter about something. Say you go ahead and start torturing the person you’ve captured. After all, innocents are about to die. You’ve gotta do something. So you torture the person you captured. He starts telling you something. You have no way to verify if what he has told you is accurate, so now you have to find some way to verify. If this scenario is time sensitive though, you don’t have much time, supposedly, so you rush through and find that in fact, none of it was true. Chatter ended up being just chatter, and the person you captured ended up being involved only slightly, but in some other group, and what he told you was thrown out to stop the pain, regardless of how accurate. He obviously did not know something about it, but he didn’t know that you didn’t know. More importantly he didn’t know that you didn’t know that he didn’t know. This scenario ends up not being a good justification because you simply don’t have the time to verify if the information given is accurate, especially when you don’t know yourself very much about it.

Moreover, here is an example where the ticking-bomb scenario is used as justification. Only problem is, as you read this, it took the Philipinos 67 days (!!!!!) to extract this information, that was never verified as accurate:

The self-described civil libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, published a book in 2002 entitled, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. In Chapter Four, he calls for the use of “nonlethal” torture in “ticking bomb” situations. Unfortunately, he neither tells us how we can be sure that an event is imminent nor how we can be sure that the torture applied will not have a fatal result. On the surface, his recommendation of pushing needles under someone’s fingernails appears to be a nonfatal technique. But, can we be sure of that in the case of an older source with a heart problem? As evidence that torture works, Dershowitz describes an event that took place in the Philippines in 1995. It seems the police captured one Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They beat him and broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Sixty-seven days later he broke and told of terror plots to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the CIA and to assassinate the Pope. Unsaid here is which of these purported plots were subsequently confirmed. Also, I find it curious that Dershowitz would argue for the use of torture in a “ticking bomb” situation based on a torture-interrogation example that took sixty-seven days to bring to fruition. According to WO Brian Copeland of the Navy/Marine Intelligence Training Course (NMITC), Dam Neck, Va., current Marine Corps interrogation doctrine is that detainee information is highly perishable and, in a tactical environment, has a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours.

Number 4 is tied to number 1. We think they don’t get protection just as we think they deserve it. Alas, they still need to be weeded out, given the ability to defend themselves against their accusations before they are proven guilty. The law of “innocent until proven guilty” was and is meant to apply universally to all, regardless of all possible loopholes.

The one that best justifies the use of torture is number 3; they have information we need. All the rest are basically regarding punishment, which we have laws against—or used to before Republicans fell asleep at the Congressional wheel. All talk about protecting freedom, and “gotta stop them before they kill your grandma” is hyperbole and meant to scare you. That can be easily discounted. We’re in a situation now where we need to know the movement of an enemy that is openly attacking us, meaning they wait for the right moment to strike, when we don’t usually expect it, and hit us pretty successfully. We need actionable intelligence, and our own operatives cannot infiltrate this enemy—who knows why, though this should be a good question asked of the CIA. How do we best get information about the enemy’s movements, strategies and thoughts? I’ve argued before that the best option is to inquire of the Lord rather than attempt to beat it out of the enemy. After all, who are you going to trust more anyways, a hardened terrorist, or the Lord of all the Earth?

Apparently though, I don’t have many takers on that novel concept, even though I gave an example of a military leader (Captain Moroni) inquiring of the Lord to know the movement of the enemy. In any case, that leaves us with somehow extracting that information from an enemy we capture. So we capture an enemy combatant. How do we best get information out of him? Let’s see what retired Air Force Col. John Rothrock says (quoted in the earlier Applebaum piece):

More than once he was faced with a ticking time-bomb scenario: a captured Vietcong guerrilla who knew of plans to kill Americans. What was done in such cases was “not nice,” he says. “But we did not physically abuse them.” Rothrock used psychology, the shock of capture and of the unexpected. Once, he let a prisoner see a wounded comrade die. Yet — as he remembers saying to the “desperate and honorable officers” who wanted him to move faster — “if I take a Bunsen burner to the guy’s genitals, he’s going to tell you just about anything,” which would be pointless. Rothrock, who is no squishy liberal, says that he doesn’t know “any professional intelligence officers of my generation who would think this is a good idea.”

Ms. Applebaum continues with another intelligence officer with more recent experience:

Or listen to Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a military intelligence specialist who conducted interrogations in Vietnam, Panama and Iraq during Desert Storm, and who was sent by the Pentagon in 2003 — long before Abu Ghraib — to assess interrogations in Iraq. Aside from its immorality and its illegality, says Herrington, torture is simply “not a good way to get information.” In his experience, nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk with no “stress methods” at all, let alone cruel and unusual ones. Asked whether that would be true of religiously motivated fanatics, he says that the “batting average” might be lower: “perhaps six out of ten.” And if you beat up the remaining four? “They’ll just tell you anything to get you to stop.”

Retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs tells Newsweek:

“At the end of the day, it’s very easy to distinguish between the right thing and the wrong thing to do. If you do the wrong thing, you’re not going to get any positive payoff from it and it’s going to be of at some great cost,” Jacobs said. “We get much more information if we treat people properly.”

“You need to be aggressive to get the information you want, but if you treat people inhumanely, they’re just going to tell you what they think you want to hear,” he said. “They’ll do anything just to get the mistreatment to stop, so you get nothing from mistreatment.”

Speaking of his experiences, Jacobs said he has had the best success by being decent to people.

“Down in Guantanamo Bay, there are instances in which lots of al-Qaida people will tell you anything that you want to know and tell them as much truth as you want them to tell you if you give them the candy bar that they want or the magazine that they require,” he said.

“When I was in Vietnam, we were given the most intelligence, the best intelligence and had the most success with captors if we gave them cigarettes, medical care, food (and) water. Almost always, you get the best success from treating people properly,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs added that that being viewed as a country that opposes torture can have other benefits.

“I’m not a big fan of being concerned about what other people thing, but I have to say, that if we don’t have a good name in the international community, getting our own objectives accomplished in the wider variety of different venues, is going to be very difficult,” he said.

Evan Thomas says in an article I quoted previously about torture:

In recent interviews with NEWSWEEK reporters, U.S. intelligence officers say they have little—if any—evidence that useful intelligence has been obtained using techniques generally understood to be torture. It is clear, for instance, that Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. His interrogators even threatened, à la Jack Bauer, to go after his family. (KSM reportedly shrugged off the threat to his family—he would meet them in heaven, he said.) KSM did reveal some names and plots. But they haven’t panned out as all that threatening: one such plot was a plan by an Al Qaeda operative to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge—with a blow torch. Intelligence officials could never be sure if KSM was holding back on more serious threats, or just didn’t know of any.


The very first high-ranking Al Qaeda operative captured—Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libbi-was first interrogated by the FBI. But when the FBI wanted to use its normal, go-slow methods, the prisoner was turned over to the CIA—who promptly turned him over to the Egyptians. (NEWSWEEK has reported that as al-Libbi was led to a plane routed for Egypt, a CIA operative whispered in his ear that he planned to “f— your mother”.) Under the no-doubt rough care of the Egyptians, al-Libbi talked of plots and agents. The information was used to make the case for war against Iraq. As recounted in “Hubris,” a new book by NEWSWEEK’s Michael Isikoff and David Corn, there was only one problem: al-Libbi later recanted, saying that he had lied to stop the torture.

U.S. Cavalry On Point, a counter intelligence journal for the military writes:

These techniques have caused men to do as their abusers wanted them to do or say, and, at times, caused the unintended death of the detainee.

This article continues by quoting Napoleon Bonaparte:

“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”

In another example, the article points out:

On 27 May 2004, The New York Times reported that on 30 August 2003, LTC Alvin B. West, an artillery battalion commander, detained an Iraqi police officer named Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi for interrogation because West believed the officer knew about a “plot to ambush him and his men.” West “made a calculated decision to intimidate the Iraqi officer with a show of force . . . [even though he previously] had never conducted or witnessed an interrogation.” The Interrogation of Hamoodi, that included hitting him and threatening his life, failed to produce the desired answers. West then fired his pistol next to his head. Hamoodi gave West the names of several men who were purportedly involved in an effort to kill him. One man was picked up and shortly thereafter released; none of the named men were determined to be involved in the so-called plot. Later, “Mr. Hamoodi said that he was not sure what he told the Americans, but that it was meaningless information induced by fear and pain.”

They also share an example from the French-Algerian War where the French used torture on Algerians—The French lost the war, by the way.

Aussaresses was asked whether he would use torture to force al Qaeda suspects to talk. He answered in English and without hesitation: “It seems to me that it is obvious.” He is the author of the book, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria 1955-1957 where he describes his use of torture against Algerian insurgents. Aussaresses had no intelligence training and his instruction in interrogation came from the Algerian Gendarmerie: “They quickly informed me that the best way to force a terrorist who refused to disclose what he knew was to torture him.” Ironically, he admits, “It was the first time that I tortured anyone. But . . . the man died without talking.” The book is also replete with stories of summary executions of those who admitted to being involved with the Algerian insurgency or those who were fingered by tortured Algerians; he doesn’t mention any effort to confirm an accusation before he executed the accused. Nevertheless, he justifies the use of torture by saying that it was instrumental in defeating the insurgents by 1957 even though he admits many merely withdrew to the Atlas Mountains only to return later to expedite the withdrawal of France from Algeria in 1962.

Retired Major Milavic (who wrote this article I’m quoting from extensively) continues by showing examples of alternatives:

You would also find illuminating the book: The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe. This German interrogator purportedly gleaned information from every one of the American and British fighter pilots he interrogated without ever resorting to violence. This is not surprising when you consider: FM 2-22.3 states that direct questioning “works 90 to 95 percent of the time.” Even Gen Aussaresses admits in his book, “most of the time I didn’t need to resort to torture, but only talk to people.” Trained interrogators, of course, know this–the operant words here are, “trained interrogators.”

Most instructive is the story ret. Major Milavic recounts on page three of his article.

The following is a partial extract from the 11 July 2004, New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Memoir: Interrogation Unbound,” By Hyder Akbar, as told to Susan Burton. This narrative demonstrates what can happen when someone untrained in interrogation—especially this interrogation precept–attempts to interrogate a detainee:

It was a Wednesday afternoon in June 2003, and Abdul Wali was being interrogated by three Americans at their base near Asadabad, Afghanistan. I was interpreting. At the time, Wali’s family guessed his age to be 28; he was 10 years older than I was. I’m 19 now. I grew up mostly in the Bay Area suburbs, but since the fall of the Taliban, I’ve been spending summers in Afghanistan, working alongside my father, Said Fazel Akbar, the governor of Kunar, a rural province in the eastern part of the country. It’s a strange double life. I sometimes stumble into situations in which I’m called upon to act as a kind of cultural translator. It’s a role that can leave me tense and frustrated, or far worse: I came away from Wali’s interrogation feeling something close to despair.

On June 18, 2003, Abdul Wali visited my father’s office. He knew that the Americans wanted to question him about some recent rocket attacks. He told us he was innocent, and he said he was terrified of going to the U.S. base, because there were pervasive rumors that prisoners were tortured there. My father told him that he needed to go, and he sent me along to reassure him.

A half-hour later, Wali and I were sitting across from three men I then knew only by their first names: Steve, Brian and Dave, who proved to be David A. Passaro. It was more than 100 degrees in the small room, and above us, a fan whirred wildly.

The interrogation started casually enough. In his friendly Southern accent, Brian dispensed with the nuts and bolts: have you been in contact with Taliban? Were you Taliban? Then the subject turned to Wali’s recent visit to Pakistan.

“How long ago were you in Pakistan?” Brian asked.

Wali looked confused, and I doubted he’d be able to answer. People in Kunar don’t have calendars; most of them don’t even know how old they are.

“You don’t have to give a specific date,” Brian said. “Was it two, three days ago? Two, three weeks ago? Two, three months ago?”

“I don’t know,” Wali responded. “It’s really hard for me to say.”

The Americans exchanged glances. I prodded him: “Can you at least say a week or two weeks or a month or two months, or something?” But he couldn’t. For him, as for many of his countrymen, time unfolded forward—there was no way to go back later and try to fix it in a structure.

“I just, I go to sleep, I wake up and there’s a next day,” he explained.

“I feed myself, I go to sleep and there’s a next day.”

The Americans weren’t buying it. Dave took over the questioning.

He asked Wali where he had been 14 days earlier, on a night when three rockets were fired at the American base. “How could you not know where you were on the night three rockets were fired?” he said. Wali explained that his nights were often punctuated by explosions.

Even seated, Dave seemed enlarged by anger. His demeanor felt put on, as if he were acting the role of a fearsome interrogator (especially in comparison to Brian, whose Southern hospitality softened even his grilling of this suspected terrorist). Dave fixed Wali with an unrelenting stare. Wali returned a nervous smile.

“Translate this to him!” Dave exploded: “This is not a joking matter! Don’t smile!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend him,” Wali replied anxiously. “It’s very hard for me. I can’t understand anything he’s saying. He was staring at me, and I didn’t know what to do. What should I do?” he asked me.

I wasn’t sure how to react. Dave’s behavior was unpredictable. Only days earlier, he and I had a friendly conversation about his little son, who could say his ABC’s and count from 1 to 20 and back down again. But now he was acting as if he was full of rage. “If you’re lying, your whole family, your kids, they’ll all get hurt from this,” he threatened.

As I translated, I started to feel as if Dave’s words to Wali were my own, and all I wanted to do was stop saying these things to him.

“Your situation’s getting worse,” Dave warned. How was I supposed to tell that to Wali, when my father had assured him that coming to the base would make everything better?

Nobody was behaving the way they would with a regular translator; both sides added comments meant only for me. In one ear, I had Wali pleading: “I’m innocent, I’m innocent.” In the other, I had Brian dismissing his account: “That is impossible.” What was I supposed to do, argue or agree?

At some point, I announced that Wali was making personal, emotional appeals to me, and that the other translator in the room—a local Afghan employed at the base—should take over. Then I quietly tried to share my largest concern with Brian. “I’m not going to translate for this guy,” I whispered. “Look how he’s acting.”

“What do you mean?” Brian replied, perhaps misunderstanding. “I’m totally calm.”

“You’re calm, but look at Dave,” I said.

Brian shrugged his shoulders.

As the interrogation continued, I was relieved to be on the sidelines, but still, it wasn’t easy to watch Dave browbeat Wali. Finally the questions stopped, and Wali stood facing the wall as the Americans patted him down in preparation for detention. “Is there anything you want to give to your family?” Dave asked him.

The question terrified Wali. “No, no,” he stuttered.

I approached Wali and, to calm him, put my hand on his shoulder.

“Just say the truth,” I told him, trying to sound normal. “Nothing is going to happen if you just say the truth.” Then I walked out of the room, promising myself that I’d come back and check up on him.

He died before I got the chance.

On June 17 of [2004], a federal grand jury indicted C.I.A. contractor, David A. Passaro, in connection with his assault. Passaro, the first civilian to be charged in the investigation of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of beating Wali using his hands, his feet and a large flashlight. [Also, according to the 29 July 2004 Fayetteville (NC) Observer, Passaro is a former Special Forces medic and “was working at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command as a ‘medical intelligence research analyst’ when he was arrested.”]

Note the miscommunication between the interrogators and detainee.

Here is an abstract to a paper that argues the ineffectiveness of torture:

This Essay attempts to add a bit of realism to the theoretical debate on torture by urging that we take a shrewd look at the quality of information brutal interrogations produce. Looking at popular discourse about torture, this Essay recognizes widespread belief in what it calls the torture myth – the idea that torture is the most effective interrogation practice. In reality, this Essay argues, in addition to moral and legal problems, the use of torture carries with it a host of practical problems which seriously blunt its effectiveness. This Essay maintains that contrary to the myth, torture doesn’t always produce the desired information and, in the cases in which it does, it may not produce it in a timely fashion. In the end the Essay concludes, that any marginal benefit of torture is low because traditional techniques of interrogation may be as good, and possibly even better at producing valuable intelligence without torture’s tremendous costs.

Here is an article that proves torture does not work, using game theory.

Koppl argues that torture is useless for intelligence gathering, because governments cannot get around a basic problem. “They cannot make a believable promise to stop torture once the victim tells the truth. Victims know this perfectly well and therefore say anything and everything except what the torturers want to know.” Two problems prevent governments from making a “credible commitment” to stop torture once victims tell the truth. First, “they use torture because they don’t know the truth already. But that means that they can’t recognize the truth when the victim speaks it.” Second, “even if they know they’ve got the truth, the victim is afraid they will keep torturing him anyway.”

The study, entitled “Epistemic Systems,” applies game theory to social situations in which people must decide whether to lie or tell the truth. Game theory is the branch of applied mathematics that studies how people in conflict try to get the best outcome for themselves by picking the best available strategy. It has been used to study games such as poker and political conflicts such as war. Koppl is using game theory to understand when people lie. “As we all learn in childhood,” Koppl remarks, “deciding whether to tell the truth is not just a moral issue; it can be a strategic choice as well.”

Finally this article gives several reasons why torture is wrong and does not work:

First, it is impossible for interrogators to know with any reasonable degree of certainty
that a suspect possesses information about the threat.

Second, licensing torture would undoubtedly encourage its abuse, since the legal and
moral stigma attaching to torture is removed.

Third, torturing anyone who may have information, and not just wrongdoers, casts
collective suspicion on whole groups of people, such as the family, friends and
colleagues of a suspect, who may happen to know something about the threat. There is
no clear limit to the range of people who could be exposed to torture.

Fourth, if torturing terrorists aims to protect public safety, it is hard to see why other
threats should not be combated by torture. Why not torture those planning genocide,
war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder or rape, even a child kidnapper, as well as
those who might know of others planning such crimes? Again, there is no obvious limit
to torture once the door to it is opened.

Fifth, torture does not work.

Finally, torture corrupts our institutions and professions. Requiring interrogators to
torture degrades and brutalizes them as human beings, and society cannot demand this
of them. (I am trying to imagine what the job description would look like in The Sydney
Morning Herald: “Experienced torturers only need apply. Former Taliban welcome.”)

In Conclusion, torture does not work and provides unreliable information, never anything worth using to protect one’s nation. I challenge backers of torture to prove its effectiveness calculating the opportunity cost of using the tactic. Otherwise, America must vote in November for the party which will punish those who employ this tactic: the Democratic Party. Vote Republicans out.


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  1. […] me, at this point share the following from an earlier post: The self-described civil libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, published a book in 2002 entitled, Why […]

  2. […] to many deaths of prisoners at the hands of Americans, who would have lived under pre-9/11 rules. Major Milavic writes shares the following sad story from Afghanistan: The following is a partial extract from the 11 July 2004, New York Times Magazine article […]

  3. […] chase false leads which wastes resources and time that could be spent actually making progress.  This article in The Good Democrat is an excellent overview: First, it is impossible for interrogators to know with any reasonable […]

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