The Efficacy of Torture
April 21, 2009
Most Americans who are watching revelations about our past torture practices and related abuses, or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, seem primarily interested in the extent and nature of those activities. In the arcane world of secret intelligence, many professionals are asking precisely what if any benefits have accrued as a result of these questionable activities. More simply put, does torture work?
Interrogation is one of the disciplines used by intelligence officers working to obtain information. It rests somewhere in a continuum that includes interviewing, recruitment, debriefing and elicitation.
The most basic of these techniques is arguably recruitment, in which an intelligence officer seeks to obtain the cooperation of a prospective agent for the purpose of producing needed intelligence. Recruitment attempts can be categorized into two general categories, collaborative and coercive. Of these two, collaborative recruitments have been the only ones that have been consistently successful. Coercive recruitments rarely work because there is no communality of interest, only the threat of some as yet undefined punishment for the prospective recruit.
Collaborative recruitment is like seduction. It involves a dynamic in which two people realize that they have a common goal and then work together to reach that goal. The point is, it is a mutually shared process and goal. It works only if there is some positive benefit in it for both participants.
Interrogation is a totally different process. It starts with the fact that it involves one person who has been captured or arrested and is now being held captive by another, creating an uneven situation in which there is no mutual benefit in sight. That means that at the onset of the interrogation process, there is no identity of purpose between captor and captive. There is only reason for the captive to do everything he thinks will help him survive.
In an uneven, captor/captive situation, the captive – and this is particularly true in military or intelligence operations – has no reason to tell the truth. He has every reason to try to figure out what his captor wants and to then try to provide it. He will say virtually anything to stop torture, but will be terrified to reveal the real truth, realizing that doing so will probably end the interrogation process, bringing totally a uncertain future for him, perhaps even death!
Truly gifted interrogators say unequivocally that they can move from the essentially hostile imbalance that is inherent at the beginning of an interrogation to the stage of mutual advantage found in a recruitment scenario simply by approaching the captive as if he were a recruitment target. At that point, using the same process of seduction, he not only establishes a mutuality of interest, but completely removes all the disadvantages of coercion.
Members of the Bush Administration and the occasional “anonymous CIA source” have consistently told us that waterboarding has produced critical intelligence. Yet, admissions have crept into the public domain that not all of what was learned by waterboarding was true and accurate. Many of the most experienced and successful Military and FBI interrogators support this conclusion, saying it simply does not work.
The purpose of this piece is not to attempt to justify waterboarding or any other sort enhanced interrogation technique, or torture. We live in an unfortunate environment in which, thanks to mass media productions like Fox TV’s “24”, many Americans have been led to believe that torture produces critical intelligence. As that is the primary argument used by proponents of waterboarding, it simply must be challenged and cleared up. The keys to this matter lie probably the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
If it is found to be true that torture is productive, the debate formed in the Bush era on the legality of enhanced interrogation will continue. It will probably end with the banning of these techniques based simply on their lack of constitutionality.
However, if it can be established, as it is claimed by so many successful and experienced interrogators, that torture does not work and really never has, there will be no need for further debate.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.