Five Myths About Torture and Interrogation

December 27, 2007 by  


Torture’s defenders insist that the rough stuff gets results, but evidence suggests it’s hard to get anything under torture, true or false.

Courtesy Darius Rejali, Washington Post

Sunday, December 23, 2007

So the CIA did indeed torture Abu Zubaydah, the first al Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded. So says John Kiriakou, the first former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of “high-value” al Qaeda detainees to speak publicly. He minced no words recently in calling the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” what they are.

But did they work? Torture’s defenders, including the wannabe tough guys who write Fox’s “24,” insist that the rough stuff gets results. “It was like flipping a switch,” said Kiriakou about Zubaydah’s response to being waterboarded. But the al Qaeda operative’s confessions — descriptions of fantastic plots from a man whom journalist Ron Suskind has reported was mentally ill — probably didn’t give the CIA any actionable intelligence. Of course, we might never know the whole truth, because the CIA destroyed the videotapes of Zubaydah’s interrogation. But here are some other myths that are bound to come up as the debate over torture rages on.

1. Torture worked for the Gestapo.

Actually, no. Even Hitler’s notorious secret police got most of its information from public tips, informers and interagency cooperation. That was still more than enough to let the Gestapo decimate anti-Nazi resistance in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Russia and the concentration camps.

Yes, the Gestapo did torture people for intelligence, especially in its later years. But this reflected not torture’s efficacy but the loss of many seasoned professionals to World War II, increasingly desperate competition for intelligence among Gestapo units and an influx of less disciplined younger members. (Why do serious, tedious police work when you have a uniform and a whip?) It’s surprising how unsuccessful the Gestapo’s brutal efforts were. They failed to break senior leaders of the French, Danish, Polish and German resistance. I’ve spent more than a decade collecting all the cases of Gestapo torture “successes” in multiple languages; the number is small and the results pathetic, especially compared with the devastating effects of public cooperation and informers.

2. Everyone talks sooner or later under torture.

Actually, it’s surprisingly hard to get anything under torture, true or false. For example, between 1500 and 1750, French prosecutors tried to torture confessions out of 785 individuals. Torture was legal back then, and the records document such practices as the bone-crushing use of splints, pumping stomachs with water until they swelled and pouring boiling oil on the feet. But the number of prisoners who said anything was low, from 3 percent in Paris to 14 percent in Toulouse (an exceptional high). Most of the time, the torturers were unable to get any statement whatsoever.

And such examples could be multiplied. The Japanese, no strangers to torture, said it best in their field manual, which was found in Burma during World War II: They described torture as the clumsiest possible method for gathering intelligence. Like most sensible torturers, they preferred using torture for intimidation, not information.

3. People will say anything under torture.

Well, no, although this is a favorite chestnut of torture’s foes. Think about it: Sure, someone would lie under torture, but wouldn’t they also lie if they were being interrogated without coercion?

In fact, the problem of torture does not stem from the prisoner who has information; it stems from the prisoner who doesn’t. Such a person is also likely to lie, to say anything, often convincingly. The torture of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation, but the torture of the ignorant and innocent overwhelms investigators with misleading information. In these cases, nothing is indeed preferable to anything. Anything needs to be verified, and the CIA’s own 1963 interrogation manual explains that “a time-consuming delay results” — hardly useful when every moment matters.

Intelligence gathering is especially vulnerable to this problem. When police officers torture, they know what the crime is, and all they want is the confession. When intelligence officers torture, they must gather information about what they don’t know.

4. Most people can tell when someone is lying under torture.

Actually, no — and we know quite a bit about this. For about 40 years, psychologists have been testing police officers as well as normal people to see if they can spot lies, and the results aren’t encouraging. Ordinary folks have an accuracy rate of about 57 percent, which is pretty poor considering that 50 percent is the flip of a coin. Likewise, the cops’ accuracy rates fall between 45 percent and 65 percent — sometimes less accurate than a coin toss.

Why does this matter? Because even if a torturer breaks a person, the torturer has to recognize it, and most of the time they can’t. Torturers assume too much and reject what doesn’t fit their assumptions. For instance, British physician Sheila Cassidy cracked under electric shock torture by the Chilean secret service in the 1970s and identified priests who had helped the country’s socialist opposition. But her devout interrogators couldn’t believe that priests would ever help the socialists, so they tortured her for another week until they were convinced. By that time, she was so damaged that she couldn’t remember the location of the safe house.

In fact, most torturers are nowhere near as well trained for interrogation as police are. Torturers are usually chosen because they’ve endured hardship and pain, fought with courage, kept secrets, held the right beliefs and earned a reputation as trustworthy and loyal. They often rely on folklore about lying behavior — shifty eyes, sweaty palms and so on. Unsurprisingly, they make a lot of mistakes.

5. You can train people to resist.

Supposedly, this is why we can’t know what the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” are: If Washington admits that it waterboards suspected terrorists, al Qaeda will set up “waterboarding-resistance camps” across the world. Be that as it may, the truth is that no training will help the bad guys.

Simply put, nothing predicts the outcome of one’s resistance to pain better than one’s own personality. Against some personalities, nothing works; against others, practically anything does. Studies of hundreds of detainees who broke under Soviet and Chinese torture, including Army-funded studies of U.S. prisoners of war, conclude that before, during and after torture, each prisoner displayed strengths and weaknesses dependent on his or her own character. The CIA’s own “Human Resources Exploitation Manual” from 1983 and its so-called KUBARK manual from 1963 agree. In all matters relating to pain, the KUBARK manual says, the “individual remains the determinant.”

What’s most clear from studies of torture victims is that you can’t train for the ordeal. There is no secret knowledge out there about how to resist torture. There are manuals such as the Irish Republican Army’s “Green Book,” the anti-Soviet “Manual for Psychiatry for Dissidents” and “Torture and the Interrogation Experience,” an Iranian guerrilla manual from the 1970s. But none of these contain specific techniques of resistance, just general encouragement to hang tough. Even al Qaeda’s vaunted terrorist-training manual offers no tips about how to resist torture, and al Qaeda was no stranger to the brutal methods of the Saudi police.

And yet these myths persist. “The larger problem here,” one active CIA officer observed in 2005, “is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn’t work.”

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College. He is the author of the recently published ‘Torture and Democracy.’

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