Yet Another Example of Why Torture is Ineffective

April 9, 2007 at 4:24 pm | Posted in American politics, Bush Administration, Gitmo, Great Britain, Iran, Military | 4 Comments

The incident with the captured British soldiers has an illuminating story to tell in regards to “enhanced techniques.” Let’s review what is out there so far. The soldiers were taken by Iranians (whether in Iranian or Iraqi waters is not my concern in this post). They were held for about two weeks, flown to Tehran, and according to their press conference, were subject to some psychological pressures, including threats of execution. The soldiers quickly signed statements saying they were in Iranian waters and apologized to Iran for intruding on Iranian waters. They were paraded on Iranian television stating the same, that they were in the wrong. Through diplomatic means, Britain received the soldiers back. Now back in England, the fifteen soldiers say they were “coerced” to confess they were in the wrong. So, which account from the British soldiers is correct? Were they right when they said on Iranian television that they illegally entered into Iranian space, or are the British soldiers right back in England where they declare their confessions were “coerced?”

A reader on Andrew Sullivan’s blog states the following:

During the the hostage/POW (depends on the context) ordeal, British “confessions” offered contrite prisoners, apparently well-treated and healthy. After a relatively brief period, they were returned home where they immediately repudiated the “confessions” as coerced.

The conventional wisdom response: “of course they were coerced.” Honestly, did anyone believe for a second that the British Navy had equipment so sketchy that they couldn’t settle their location? No, the sailors said what they needed to in order to get home.

Meanwhile, the U.S. position is that torture (or torture-like) techniques garner valuable information as opposed to false statements engineered to end discomfort. Anybody else see a disconnect here?

Andrew Sullivan expounds on his reader’s theme:

Count me in – but the public doesn’t seem to grasp this. It’s especially telling since we dismiss the statements of the captive British soldiers as the fruit of coercion even though their treatment was like a bed and breakfast compared to what has taken place at Abu Graib, Camp Cropper, Bagram or Gitmo. Why are we unable to make the same assumptions about other coerced testimony?

One possible answer is simply that as long as the victims of torture are not white or Western, they are not seen as fully human victims of torture – and therefore none of the rules we apply to full human beings count. Since any information from sub-humans is sketchy anyway, why not torture it out of them? It’s as legit as anything we’re likely to get out of them by conventional techniques. “Treat them like dogs” was General Miller’s express instructions at Abu Ghraib. And he saw the prisoners as dogs. In fact, if animal shelter workers in the West treated its dogs as some US forces have treated some detainees, they’d be fired for cruelty.

The scenario changes instantly when the victim of coercion is white or an allied soldier. It’s striking, isn’t it, that the only cases of torture in Gitmo and elsewhere that have had any traction in the wider culture have been people who do not fit the ethnic profile of Arabs. Jose Padilla is Latino; David Hicks is Australian. When they’re tortured, we worry about the reliability of the evidence. But when we torture “information” out of men called al-Qhatani or Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the information we get is allegedly saving “thousands of lives.” How do we know this? Because the torturers, i.e. the Bush administration, tell us so. And so the circle of cognitive dissonance tightens until it becomes airtight.

The question is a very valid one in regards to these “enhanced techniques.” Let’s look at this carefully. Fifteen of Her Majesty’s best soldiers are taken by Iran and treated, well, fairly mildly. I mean, they weren’t waterboarded, for example, nor caused to go through sleep deprivation. They were threatened with a long period in Iranian prison. Some of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard supposedly played with their weapons to invoke the threat of execution. Fair enough, that’s not a pleasant thing to experience. With these psychological techniques used, all fifteen of the British soldiers “confessed.” They felt it was better for them to lie in public than to experience the threats their captors wished to do to them.

Now, we get Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al-Qaida’s number 3. Let’s take a look at the multitude of things he confessed to plotting:

According to partially redacted transcripts released by the Pentagon, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted to masterminding the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In addition, Mohammed admitted to being the executor of or participant in the following plots (some of which were never executed):

— Shoe bomber operation to bring down two American airplanes.

— Planning an assassination attempt against President Bill Clinton during his visit to the Philippines in 1994.

— Planning an assassination attempt againt Pope John Paul II while he was visiting the Philippines.

— Planning an assassination attempt against former President Jimmy Carter.

— Filki Island operation in Kuwait that killed two American soldiers.

— Bombing of nightclub in Bali, Indonesia in 2002.

— Planning new wave of attacks on the following skyscrapers following 9/11: Library Tower in Calif., Sears Tower in Chicago, Plaza Bank in Washington state and the Empire State Building in New York City.

— Destruction of many nightclubs frequented by American and British citizens in Thailand.

— Planning and financing the destruction of U.S. embassies in Indonesia, Australia and Japan.

— Surveying and financing the destruction of Israeli embassies in India, Azerbaijan, the Philippines and Australia.

— Sending several mujahedeen into Israel to conduct surveillance to hit strategic targets in the country.

— Bombing of hotel in Mombassa, Kenya that is frequented by Jewish travelers.

— Financing attacks on several American, Jewish and British targets in Turkey.

— Planning, surveying and financing attacks on NATO headquarters in Europe.

In total, Mohammed confessed to planning 29 individual attacks, many of which never came to fruition.

Now, what “techniques” were used on KSM? ABC News got the scoop on the techniques used:

The CIA sources described a list of six “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” instituted in mid-March 2002 and used, they said, on a dozen top al Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to Eastern Europe. According to the sources, only a handful of CIA interrogators are trained and authorized to use the techniques:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

“The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

The techniques are controversial among experienced intelligence agency and military interrogators. Many feel that a confession obtained this way is an unreliable tool. Two experienced officers have told ABC that there is little to be gained by these techniques that could not be more effectively gained by a methodical, careful, psychologically based interrogation. According to a classified report prepared by the CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon and issued in 2004, the techniques “appeared to constitute cruel, and degrading treatment under the (Geneva) convention,” the New York Times reported on Nov. 9, 2005.

It is “bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough,” said former CIA officer Bob Baer.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department’s office of counterterrorism, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust … than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets.”

Right, now, does anyone believe that KSM would NOT confess to all he confessed to after going through all that? Of course he would. Now, how accurate would his confession be? How accurate were the confessions of the fifteen British soldiers through clearly much lighter techniques? I cited FoxNews for KSM’s “confession.” Note how matter of factly they trusted his confession to be accurate. Why? Seriously.


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  1. Interesting.

    While I agree with you that it is pointless to use torture to gain confession, can you make the same argument that it is ineffective in gaining strategic information?

    The British soldiers confessed to “sins”. OK. Of course we can assume that such confessions were false. These are things that can be proved or disproved based upon facts. And of course, if all we got out of the Sheik was a confession to masterminding all things terroristic, then we can just as well assume those to be merely the result of coersion.

    But do you really think those British soldiers would easily give up tactical secrets and locations of their units just to avoid discomfort? Neither would a terrorist.

    The Iranians merely wanted to salvage some credibility to justify an act of stupidity on their part. They knew the world knew those soldiers were not picked up in Iranian waters. But how to get out of it? Make the soldiers confess that they were.

    I have been reading some of your blogs. While I disagree in many aspects of your contentions, I generally appreciate following your thinking to a logical conclusion. This one misses the point, though. Sorry, try again.

  2. Practicalist,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure I understand what you are saying here. Are you agreeing with me that torture is not effective? That was my main thrust of this post.

  3. I am agreeing that torture may be pointless in gaining confessions. But that is not evidence that can support a blanket argument that torture is ineffective in all other matters. For example, suppose Iran had wanted sensitive information on top secret maneuvers that would jeopardize the life of British agents or public security. Would the British hostages have simply given that up just so they could home? Probably not. But if they were faced with an indefinite future of torture and unbearable pain, would they be justified in giving up the information? Perhaps.

    Getting terrorists to confess is probably not the main thrust of most of these interrogations. Getting terrorists to confess, and getting sensitive information out of them that may save the known world, or at least keep you and me safe for a little while longer, is what I imagine to be the purpose of coersive, torturous interrogation.

    See, decrying torture as ineffective because it gets false confessions is a false generalization. It cannot be argued by analogy that it is equally ineffective in getting sensitive, classified strategic information.

    Having said that, you do make a good argument for torture being immoral. To posit against torture on that ground is much stronger than on the effectiveness of torture.

  4. Practicalist,

    I’ve written on torture in numerous previous posts. The false confession is hardly my main evidence that torture is ineffective. As the title of this post states, “yet another example of why torture is ineffective.” Just another in a long line. In a previous post, I quote from Retired Major Milavic who wrote for US Cavalry On Point the following:

    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.

    That particular post has many more examples that these aggressive techniques don’t work and that the old tried and true interrogation techniques actually work far better. I’m not against torture just because it is immoral (which it is), but also because it just doesn’t work. Secondly, it also has severe negative repercussions on our credibility and standing in the world. Note that we cannot criticize the Iranians for the way they treated the British soldiers, for example. How could we? We’ve done far worse to our prisoners and detainees.

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