Why Torture Is Counterproductive

12 MINS READDec 10, 2014 | 02:13 GMT
Does torturing suspected terrorists work?
(Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Getty Images)
Military police process incoming Taliban and al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray in Cuba in 2002.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government had very little intelligence on al Qaeda's plans and capabilities. There was a tremendous amount of fear that the strikes were only the first of many large-scale attacks to come, and reports even circulated that the group had nuclear weapons planted in U.S. cities. The public as well as government officials were in shock and caught off guard. In hindsight, it is easy to understand how extreme fear of the unknown compelled some elements of the intelligence community to embrace the idea that harsh interrogation measures were required to understand the urgent and nebulous threat the nation was facing.

Indeed, the sense of fear and panic was significant enough to cause personnel in some agencies to override the moral objections associated with extreme interrogation tactics, which is also to ignore the widely regarded fact that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. Yet, the Senate report released Dec. 9 makes it clear that, from a purely pragmatic point of view, the results of the United States' enhanced interrogation program were negligible, and as the final analysis shows, the morally objectionable means of this program were not justified by its paltry results.

Reviving the Controversy

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report highlights and describes certain techniques in great detail — including the use of stress positions, sleep deprivation, slapping, shaking, water boarding and induced hypothermia — but does not reveal any techniques that were not already publicly known. The CIA began implementing these techniques, deemed torture by opponents and enhanced or harsh interrogation techniques by supporters, in 2002. The aim was to improve the chances of acquiring time-sensitive information from high value-targets that would be critical to national security. The thinking of the time was to employ more robust methods to uncover impending catastrophic attacks against U.S. citizens, the "ticking time bomb scenario" as it is commonly referred to.

In 2004, the revelations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq at the hands of U.S. military personnel garnered widespread coverage by domestic and international media. Images of military police harassing and violating prisoners were circulated, sparking significant controversy over whether the U.S. government employed torture against its enemy combatants, a stark violation of human rights for many as well as an infringement of the Geneva Conventions. Though the media focused on the actions of the military police, rather than interrogators, the revelations quickly led to further inquiries and deep scrutiny over the interrogation practices conducted at the prison and across the intelligence community.

The scandal led the Defense Department to quickly tighten its policies on interrogations, while each military branch emphatically trained its personnel on operating in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. However, the CIA continued to use enhanced interrogation techniques, though only for a short period and on relatively few combatants. In January 2009, President Barrack Obama signed an executive order that restricted all U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct interrogations strictly in accordance with the methods described in the U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3, a publication that is readily available to the public.

Whether the enhanced interrogation techniques implemented by the CIA equate to torture still remains a hotly contested issue in the United States. It is true that all the methods detailed in the report are intended to inflict substantial emotional or physical pain on detainees. Aside from the serious ethical concerns surrounding the techniques detailed in the Senate report, the use of torture or any technique designed to inflict some measure of pain or duress upon a detainee makes for a poor, if not counterproductive, strategy in gaining actionable intelligence. The reasons for this include the inherent nature of the interrogation process as well as the inadvertent psychological consequences of torture or harsh techniques on the detainee.

Defining Interrogation

The sole objective of an intelligence-driven interrogation is to acquire actionable information through direct questioning or elicitation of a detainee. In this sense, actionable intelligence is any piece of information, by itself or as a factor in analysis, that military commanders or policymakers can use in making decisions. If an interrogator fails to obtain such information, the sole objective was not achieved, and the process was a failure. Likewise, if the intent of an interrogation was not to gain actionable intelligence, the interrogation becomes something entirely different. 

Despite dramatic Hollywood portrayals of the intelligence-gathering process, interrogating a detainee is actually a very simple process. It can be looked at as an interview, though a major difference between an interrogation and an interview is that many subjects are unwilling to provide answers to pertinent questions at first. As a result, the first step in an interrogation is convincing the subject to cooperate. It is this critical phase, which the U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 refers to as an "approach," that often receives the most attention from the public and, sometimes, even from the interrogator.

Setting aside legal and moral considerations, there is a wide variety of conflicting approaches that can be used to encourage a detainee to provide actionable intelligence. It should be noted that not all approaches are necessarily designed to evoke negative feelings in a detainee. In fact, the Field Manual 2-22.3 details several methods designed to do the opposite. The U.S. intelligence community mostly relies on approaches that generate positive feelings within the detainee, such as "emotional love" and "pride and ego up," in addition to incentive-based approaches. Outside of inflicting emotional or physical harm on a detainee, all approaches are simply conversations guided by the interrogator that would lead the detainee to willingly provide information of intelligence value. A prime example of an incentive-based approach convincing a detainee to talk is when the Detroit underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, cooperated with U.S. authorities after they brought in two of his family members from Nigeria.

These conversations can take time for an interrogator, however, and often span multiple sessions that are carried out over the course of days, weeks or even years. While the time devoted to garner actionable intelligence can be substantial, the interrogator's chance of successfully completing the objective is slim. The vast majority of detainees who are initially uncooperative will remain so, or at least never become cooperative in full. The necessary time to run approaches and the slim odds of success are critical barriers in an interrogation that seeks to discover imminent attacks against U.S. citizens. It is because of these obstacles — that is, to save time and force cooperation — that interrogators sought to employ enhanced interrogation techniques.

The Limits of Enhanced Interrogations

As a potential source of intelligence, interrogations are one of the least reliable and least timely methods employed by the various intelligence disciplines. While inflicting emotional or physical pain on a subject as an interrogation approach will likely elicit a quick response, those responses are not necessarily truthful or accurate, and thus the interrogation can still be a failure.

Whether looking for information on potential attacks or other, less perishable intelligence, an interrogator can gather actionable intelligence only if the subject is telling the truth and answers the questions to the best of his ability. Even if the subject is cooperating, the information he shares is not always accurate. By virtue of placing the detainee under extreme stress, torture can make it difficult for the detainee to accurately recall information from memory. Detainees may misremember details and will often fabricate information they think will end the interrogation.

As a potential source of intelligence, interrogations are one of the least reliable and least timely methods employed by the various intelligence disciplines.

All information of intelligence value, particularly any information about an impending attack, is time sensitive. For the vast majority of interrogations, the information acquired can only be as recent as the date when the subject was detained, and it begins losing value immediately. A detainee who has been in detention for years will not have intelligence on a pending attack — even information that is a few days old could very well be useless. The capture of an insurgent or terrorist leader could place any attack plans on hold, or the remaining leaders could redraw them, thus making the detainee's knowledge outdated and less valuable. For this reason, when compared to the numerous other means by which the intelligence community collects intelligence, an interrogation makes a poor source of intelligence when attempting to thwart attacks. 

To understand why torture provides little benefit over approaches permissible under Field Manual 2-22.3, it is important to consider the perspective of the interrogator and the detainee.

The Process

Before entering the booth with a detainee, every interrogator is armed with a dossier on his subject and a list of collection requirements — broad, open-ended questions on an array of subjects that policymakers, military commanders or others in the intelligence community may have. Background information about the detainee can range from a complete lack of knowledge to an enormous collection of various intelligence reports that collectively proves the detainee's role within an enemy organization as well as the likely topics on which the detainee will have information. Regardless how much information an intelligence agency has on a detainee, there is always a high degree of uncertainty as to what the detainee actually knows.

Many detainees choose not to cooperate at first. They employ interrogation-resistance strategies of some fashion to avoid divulging pertinent information. These methods vary and are taught and shared by militants inside and out of detention facilities. Even before meeting their interrogator for the first time, most detainees are aware of what information they need to safeguard, often having an expectation of what questions they will be asked during the interrogation.

Sometimes it is obvious when a detainee chooses to remain uncooperative; the detainee may remain completely silent, respond to questions with inappropriate answers or attempt to take charge of the conversation. Even when they appear to be cooperating, the interrogator can never be entirely confident the detainee is responding to questions to the best of his ability or, more important, accurately sharing his information. Fortunately, interrogators are trained in numerous tactics to assess the truthfulness of a detainee's stories, but even when skillfully employed, such techniques do not provide guarantees, nor do they help build cooperation.

There are many reasons for a detainee to resist direct questioning. Whether such reasons are ideological in nature or based on fear of reprisals, a detainee must actively make the decision to provide his interrogator with accurate information. Without the desire, the detainee simply will not respond, regardless of any interrogation approach. Many advocates of enhanced interrogation techniques believe the detainee will choose to provide accurate information to stop the pain.

Establishing Rapport

In order to help an approach, an interrogator must build rapport with the subject. They must develop a relationship where credibility exists in both the interrogator and the detainee. It is only after doing this that an interrogator can accurately assess the truthfulness of a detainee's responses. Rapport helps the interrogator establish a baseline for the detainee and understand his typical behavior and mannerisms, developed through conversations discussing pertinent and non-pertinent matters. Likewise, building rapport helps bolster the credibility of the interrogator. It is particularly helpful when using incentive-based approaches and makes the interrogator's other planned approaches more effective. Using harsh techniques or torture complicates the rapport-building process, making it harder for an interrogator to discern between lies and truth.

Building rapport does not always mean the detainee will develop positive feelings toward the interrogator, and even some approved approaches require developing an uncordial relationship. However, placing the detainee under the stress of extreme emotional or physical pain will halt any relationship building as the detainee focuses on his pain. Because an interrogator is never quite certain of what a detainee knows, the detainee under duress or pain may be subjected to questions he may truthfully not know the answers to. In this situation, a detainee will be pushed to say anything necessary to stop the pain, including lies.

Using harsh techniques or torture complicates the rapport-building process, making it harder for an interrogator to discern between lies and truth.

Even if the detainee actually has an answer that would satisfy his interrogator, he can still use resistance techniques. Resisting subjects often provide a detailed response that barely answers a given question. They also provide harmless nuggets of truth in hopes of persuading the interrogators of their full cooperation. Again, having prior intelligence on the detainee and building rapport is crucial to spotting these resistance techniques.

Not all inaccurate information provided by the detainee is necessarily a result of his being uncooperative. When being questioned under duress or pain, a detainee may simply lie to make up for a lack of knowledge. More common, however, is that all people have varying abilities to accurately recollect events, descriptions and conversations. Interrogators, particularly those tasked with gathering information on pending attacks, must strive to obtain the smallest details from the detainee. This can significantly challenge any person's memory, especially someone under extreme stress. Details of a story may become more difficult to remember, and if under extreme stress, the detainee may fabricate a critical detail, even when largely telling the truth, in order to satisfy the interrogator.  

While the need to uncover imminent terrorist attacks in the chaos directly after 9/11 was clear, several years of results have made it obvious that using enhanced interrogation techniques is not reliable. Other interrogation approaches, specifically those still permitted by FM 2-22.3, in concert with building a rapport with a detainee, yield far more reliable results. Additionally, using other intelligence-gathering methods under the human intelligence discipline, or methods from other disciplines such as signals intelligence, have proved more productive. The Senate Intelligence Committee's report only confirms this fact, acknowledging what the intelligence community already knows.

Connected Content

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.