Promoting the Myth That Torture Produces Reliable Information

The Economist takes a look at some of the arguments surrounding torture in a piece that generally does a good job of summarizing recent developments while providing some useful polling information from the BBC on public attitudes toward torture in a variety of countries. However, the article ends with the problematic suggestion that torture just might work:

Many critics of torture claim that it is ineffective as well as repugnant. Since people will say anything just to stop the pain, the information gleaned may not be reliable. On the other hand, if people do say anything under torture, you might expect some of what they say to be true and therefore—if those being tortured really are terrorists—useful to the authorities. Torture certainly helped induce Guy Fawkes to betray his co-conspirators after they had tried to blow up King James I and the British Parliament on November 5th 1605.

The article doesn’t even try to answer the question of how those gathering information might begin to distinguish between true intelligence and false stories told to stop pain. The Economist article also fails to mention the military’s staunch opposition to torture and cruel treatment, opposition based in part on concerns about the reliability of information derived from torture. In fact, the U.S. Army’s own field manual on interrogation, published in September 2006, asserts that torture “is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the [human intelligence] collector wants to hear.”

And, instead of taking the Guy Fawkes point any further and exploring how the existence of the Tower of London and other historical torture chambers shaped American jurisprudence and constitutionalism — notably by inspiring early Americans to REJECT torture and despotism — the piece lets stand unquestioned the assertion of former CIA Director George Tenet that the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques has produced “invaluable” intelligence. Instead, the authors should have asked veteran FBI interrogator Joe Navarro, someone with first-hand experience in interrogations, who has said, “the only thing torture guarantees you is pain.”


Published on September 20, 2007


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