Murdoc playing Devil’s Advocate on ‘torture’

Note: I really hesitate to post this, as some will read it to mean that I’m condoning “torture”. If you’re one who reads it that way, you’re wrong. I won’t argue with you, but you’re wrong. You can smile to yourself if you’d like, confident that you’re right about me. I’ll ignore you, confident that you aren’t. We’ll both be happy. But only one of us will be correct.

Both in yesterday’s post about the WW2 interrogators who are critical of today’s practitioners of the art and in most other places discussing this topic, we see a lot of “I was an interrogator and I can tell you that torture doesn’t work“-type comments. That’s basically what the WW2 vets are saying, too.

Let’s assume for a bit that many of the allegations of widespread “torture” and “abuse” are true.

No one discussing this openly knows anything about what’s really going on.

So what about the guys who are current interrogators? They’re presumably educated and skilled in their field of expertise, in most cases as knowledgeable as previous interrogators were. Are they intentionally using methods that they know don’t work? Are they ordered to use those methods even though they know they won’t work and they tell their superiors that they won’t work?

Or, perhaps, do they maybe think they might work?

Remember, no one discussing this openly knows anything about what’s really going on. We don’t know which methods are being used how much in what ways on who. We don’t know how much of what sort of information is being extracted by whom from whom. We don’t know what the interrogators are up against where or what they need by when.

So…if this ‘torture’ scenario is anywhere near as common as critics like to claim, might it not indicate that the interrogators truly think it’s an effective method? Sure, others will say it isn’t, but what qualifications do they have that the current guys don’t? Argue on moral grounds all you want, but don’t criticisms from former interrogators amount to a difference of professional opinion?

Couldn’t it also mean that the ‘ticking time bomb’-type scenario is happening in some cases? Many blow this off and make jokes about ’24’, but there are kidnapped people all the time and hints of massive attacks against civilians can’t be too uncommon. Sometimes the interrogators probably really are up against the wall, the clock ticking and all hope resting on a vital piece of information possibly known to a particular prisoner.

Another thing that has crossed my mind in the past is that former successful interrogators who used “torture” successfully aren’t all that likely to stand up and say “Hey, there, everyone. I’m a proud former torturer and I can attest to the reliability of my brutal methods.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that “torture” is right or good or effective. I just mean that I haven’t seen any convincing arguments from former interrogators.

I’m confident that some will read this all and say “Murdoc, I was an effective interrogator back in XXXX. I know for a fact that ‘torture’ doesn’t work.” I’m also confident that others will read this all and believe that they know, for a fact, very differently.

This post isn’t about whether “torture” is right or not. It also isn’t whether “torture” is legal or not. It’s about whether claims from apparent experts in the field can be used to determine whether or not today’s alleged methods are effective or not.

What think you?


  1. Im with you. If I am responsible to get a certain outcome, and my methods fail on a reasonably frequent basis, I would change my methods. Beyond that, lets look at the psychology of the act of torturing. For the sake of this comment we will assume that torture involves causing actual extreme physical pain. Not getting the right toppings on your pizza is not torture. Lets also assume that the President, the VP, the SECDEF, the commander of forces in Guantanamo, etc. do not care or are not worried about the future price to them personally for ordering torture. Have you ever killed an animal with your bare hands? a rabbit perhaps? Have you ever had a dog die on your lap? Could you even consider torturing either of those animals? Could you, without anger, day after day, inflict torture on a human being? What kind of sick bastard (Michael Vick perhaps) would get that type of job? Could you trust someone like that to return to the states and integrate with civilians? Torture just doesnt pass the smell test.

  2. One of the interesting things about discussions concerning the use of torture to elicit information is the presumption that it’s a ‘last resort’ method that wouldn’t be used until all other methods have failed. Which begs the question, if torture is such an effective tool, why not use it right off the bat? Why bother with trying to learn what you need (as opposed to want) to know using tried and true methods that may take longer, and may be frustrating at times, if you have something at your disposal that almost guarantees results every time? That’s because torture is ineffective and unreliable at best, and counterproductive at its worst. Usually the people using it are poor interrogators to begin with, and along with the torture comes really bad questioning methodology, usually leading questions. Because at its heart, torture is used to get information that the interrogator just KNOWS the prisoner is knowledgable about. So ‘unnamed sources’ trot out all this claptrap that HVT prisoners such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad has revealed all this great info, and confessed his role in many terrorist acts, but what they don’t tell you is that he confessed to just about everything else, to include being the gunman on the grassy knoll and accompanying Timothy McVeigh as John Doe number 3. So much for the reliability of the information. The other problem with torture is that once tried, and failed, there is no going back to another method. Once you’ve pulled out all the finger and toenails, waterboarded him until he’s come to believe he’s aquaman, you have basically painted yourself into a corner. No amount of ‘being nice’, to paraphrase Sherewood Moran, is going to help you in your task.

  3. One of the interesting things about discussions concerning the use of torture to elicit information is the presumption that it’s a ‘last resort’ method that wouldn’t be used until all other methods have failed. Which begs the question, if torture is such an effective tool, why not use it right off the bat? That is a great point, Jerry. Again, though, I would stress that we don’t really know what’s going on and, for all we know, any actual ‘torture’ may, in fact, be ‘last resort’ tactics. Or, maybe, it’s far more effective than many would believe and it is used right off the bat to great effect.

  4. I can’t stress enough the ineffectiveness of torture, today or in days gone by. Those subjected to it will tell you anything, and the questions that are posed by those using it have to be leading the subject into areas he probably wouldn’t go, and in most cases knows nothing about. Aside from the fact that most prisoners will have no information of value, even if you had a prisoner that had some great info, you might not get that out of him. Why? Because as stated earlier, most people who use this method are poor interrogators to begin with. They might be so focused on getting information about one thing, that they completely ignore another line of questioning and methods that lead to more fruitful information. No need to get into the legality or morality of it all, which I have purposelly refrained from doing. Nobody really knows what my position on that is, either. But the most important thing to remember, again, about interrogation is that it is only one thread in the tapestry. There are very few aha! moments, and the best information is usually going to be something that seems inconsequential until weaved in with the other threads. Don’t forget, interrogation isn’t just about asking questions. It’s about knowing the language, culture and mindset of the person you’re talking to. That goes for a cop talking to some banger in Chicago as well as an interrogator at Gitmo. You’re always going to get your most useful information using finesse and guile. Torture = Bad Methodolgy.

  5. Everyone breaks, its just a matter of time and the proper application of pressure. There are many forms of pressure, isolation, drugs, sleep deprivation, mind games of all types and yes, physical discomfort and yes, pain. Yes, you can get anyone to confess to anything. Yes there will be reliability issues, so you will have to verify. Does it make sense to ban ‘torture?’ well sure, if you can define what torture is? Sure we can all agree that electrodes to testicles is torture, but is drug induced hypersensitivity to stimuli torture? or is sleep deprivation. In supermax prisions, inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, is that torture? IMO the real question is, does the subject have or is likely to have such information that cannot be obtained via other means. Secondly, does the information to be obtained, be of such value that extreme measures are warranted. If the answers are yes, then all necessary measures should be taken to obtain the information.

  6. Hell, anyone who thinks torture doesn’t work is a dumbass! All I’d have to do is reach for the pliers and Jerry would be screaming like a little girl. It’s really too bad when politics gets in the way of a rational discussion.

  7. ‘No one discussing this [torture] openly knows anything about what’s really going on. Gee Murdoc it seems Amnesty international, the American Civil Liberties Union, The European Union and a dozen other assorted ‘self-appointed’ defenders of human rights know EXACTLY what’s going on in regard to the blatant torture methods used by the CIA, the military and other various ‘darkside’ groups on poor, innocent Muslim sheep herders.

  8. Toejam, to be fair, maybe they DO know, firsthand. If you were one of the administration’s ‘torturers’, wouldn’t they be some of the first folks you’d want to get your hands on?

  9. Somewhere in the various archives is a wealth of information collected over the last sixty-odd years of activities by the various state security organs who don’t give an ounce of dingo’s kidney about human rights. The various world powers will have evaluated this information by now and made their own decisions, naturally, but a few CIA reports suggest that torture is not as productive as other methods requiring more finesse. As someone already pointed out, burning ears and smashing toes seems likely to devolve into a situation where the victim will say anything he can think of to get you to stop. Then there’s the question of whether we should be publicly ruling out the use of torture at all…

  10. Dfens- Who the fuck do you think you are? You certainly don’t know jackshit about interrogation, other than the basic bar room BS somebody has related to you about ‘how torture has worked for me’. And since you can’t come up with any more reasonable arguments in defense of torture, you decide to focus on me and how I might respond to it. You’re goddamn right I’d scream like a little girl, just like you and everybody else. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get any information out of me, much less the information that might be useful to you. Don’t presume you have knowledge of my own history and experiences. I can assure you, you wouldn’t even come close to who I am. And politics hasn’t even entered into it, another bromide you figured you could toss in when you have no rational argument yourself, other than ‘what other people have told me’. I have not once brought politics, morality or legal issues into this discussion. I am focused on whether or not torture is an effective interrogation tool. It is not. End of story, and I’d appreciate in the future you don’t start getting personal with me. There’s no call for it, and using me as an example, to proclaim ‘I’d scream like a little girl’ just shows that you have absolutely nothing to add to this discussion.

  11. The following is mostly based on conversations and inferences rather than on direct first hand knowledge. Torture is only a last resort because you can’t readily back up to softer methods once you use it, not because of being less reliable as such. Torture does indeed have a poor signal to noise ratio, so to speak. Worse, it isn’t that fast. However, if you are willing to squeeze several pips until they are crushed, using different question patterns, and then you do proper comparisons, you can get useful information from the raw data. There is the ethical problem that most of your subjects know little or nothing, and so get hurt worse – they have little or nothing to give up. Using several people up also allows playing off one against another, since they each know that you can afford to go too far. It’s an issue of experiment design – of methodology. It’s not at all suited to the notorious hypothetical about a ticking bomb and a captured terrorist (not enough time and not enough subjects). It is more suited to Gestapo or French-in-Algeria style handling of people picked up in random trawls. The good cop/bad cop approach is a cliche by now. However, people who only know the cliche don’t know how it actually works. It’s a lot like the Stockholm Syndrome; after getting a lot of bad cop treatment, it is actually the subject who takes the initiative, reaching out for sympathy and help to anyone else around; the ‘good’ cop should not take the initiative by showing sympathy uninvited, he should start out as uninvolved. This is dog rolling over behaviour, appeasement stuff, and by itself it’s temporary and unreliable. However, you can lock it in if you allow the subject to do something concrete voluntarily, particularly if it is obvious that only (say) the first few volunteers will be accepted and the holdouts won’t be penalised (unless all hold out – Prisoners’ Dilemma). The volunteer step means complicity that they have to internalise into their value system to stay right with themselves (this doesn’t work so well or quickly if they are trained in how the techniques work). Oh, and subjects react more to personal violence with emotional content being applied to several people one after another before them, than to dispassionate damage applied to themselves; anger is more frightening than pain, withe pain really only confirming the reality of the anger. That is, there is a deeper softening up from that, before any physical stresses are applied. Generally, you can call the whole repertoire torture, a toolkit. It doesn’t make much sense to use just the physical stuff. I will now describe two cases of US atrocities in the Second World War, that I read up many years ago (so unfortunately I have forgoten the references, sorry). One was that out of 50 concentration camp guards in US custody, an investigation showed that all but one had had their testicles destroyed by repeated kicking. The other was that during interrogations German prisoners were told that their wives would be tortured until they gave in. Authentic screams were provided with a gramophone in another room. Regardless of how you classify this yourself, the investigation at the time classified this as torture. The biggest ethical problem in even discussing this is that it lets the material into your head. Murdoc may well intend only to ask about the practicality, but all this tends to turn us into that sort of person – even if you quite sincerely believe that yopu aren’t looking at the ethics, and even if the occasion never comes up in real life. It just might – I remember an occasion when a girl in a group of friends had agreed to look after a present while someone got her a drink. On his return with the drink, a practical joker had hidden it. The owner of the present then threatened to take the girl outside and break her fingers if it hadn’t been returned by a count of twenty. The idea was to make the joke unfunny, with the full knowledge that the girl couldn’t do anything to get it back. She knew that there was no bluff – she had been present when a similar joke had once locked that person out of a room when he left briefly, and he had similarly allowed a short pause before knocking the door down (actually, the lock burst). Well, the present was returned and the girl wasn’t physically harmed – but she left very soon after that. She could hardly walk to the door, she was wobbling so much. If you know how to do it, and you only think of the how it works stuff, it is all too easy to forget the question of whether you should do it. If you are very lucky, you will think about it after it comes up, and then you might have a John Newton change of heart.

  12. Yeah, I blame Murdoc for the existance of torture too. The fact that the screws I was using to fix the toilet seat the other day were too long is his fault too. Talk about toruture, that would have made for a painful constitutional. Let’s see, has anything else gone wrong lately? Hmm, no that should do it. George Bush is pretty much responsible for the rest.