“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions.

As a subset of these phenomena, torture has also proven to result frequently in misinformation and disinformation—especially in those (alarmingly regular) instances where the person under interrogation does not, in fact, have a good deal of actionable information. In these cases, victims will typically confabulate, ever-more convincingly, just to bring an end to their tribulations. As an example of just how disastrous these methodologies can be, intelligence of this nature played a pivotal role in getting the U.S. involved in Iraq by tying Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda (assertions which should have seemed patently ridiculous if policymakers understood more about the relevant socio-cultural dynamics).

To this day, most of those arrested, interrogated and detained at Guantanamo Bay have not been tried, let alone convicted, of any crime. Quite the contrary, nearly half of the remaining detainees have been cleared for release because they are not, in fact, terrorists (but remain detained indefinitely for logistical reasons). Accordingly, most of the “intelligence” tortured out of these inmates is likely be unreliable, at best.

Take, for instance, the common method of sleep-deprivation for detainees. Lack of sleep can have a dramatic and adverse effect on one’s ability to recall information clearly or even understand what one is being asked to do. Simultaneously, it makes it much more difficult for subjects to differentiate between real memories, their own fabrications, and suggestions by their interrogators. Accordingly, depriving subjects of sleep is virtually the exact formula for eliciting bad intelligence, and yet it is a hallmark of “enhanced interrogation.”

It should not be surprising then, that according to a recent Congressional inquiry, there has been virtually no “real” intelligence gathered through “enhanced interrogation” which could not have been attained, often more easily, by other means (incidentally, the same can be said of NSA bulk-collection programs)—sentiments expressed years ago by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan.

As with the U.S. drone program, criticism of “enhanced interrogation” can side-step complex and abstract moral and philosophical arguments: the simple fact of the matter is that torture is not effective—instead, reliance on these methodologies typically results in a number of unfortunate second-order effects. For instance, while these techniques are typically justified under the pretext of the “War on Terror,” it turns out that torture may exacerbate the threat of terrorism: the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have been used explicitly by transnational jihadist organizations to underscore their anti-American narratives.

Moreover, torture can radicalize its victims. If they had not been extremists before, some may be pushed in that direction as a result of their (extended confinement with true extremists as well as their) mistreatment at the hands of the American government—especially if they had done nothing wrong to begin with. And this is not even considering the adverse psychological effects of torture on those who carry it out, as well as on the institutions in which it occurs.

When confronted with moral arguments against “enhanced interrogation,” the last bastion of defense for torture apologists is to resort to “what if” scenarios, typically evoking scenes from entertainment programs like “24.” However, the sheer outlandishness of these examples (by those who consider themselves “realists” no less!) renders them nearly useless for informing policy, especially when combined with the metaphysical incongruities of these cases:

The audience is presented with a precise number of clear options, small in number (typically, 2) with unambiguous outcomes which are known (not merely anticipated) in advance of the decision in question, removed from all social context, and wherein  one has virtually infinite amounts of time to consider the case in question, which remains static while under consideration.

Virtually no part of this description would apply to any actual situation. Accordingly, it can be difficult to see how to meaningfully translate the results of these sparse hypotheticals into policies in the “real world” (even sidestepping the fact that, in practice, torture would be as likely to provide misinformation as life-saving data). It seems much better to design policies around the high likelihood that “enhanced interrogation” will produce bad intelligence and myriad iatrogenic effects, than the conjecture that “in some extraordinary circumstance” it just might save lives (when in conflict, hard empirical data should trump abstracta, however elegant).

Just as good intelligence can protect, bad intelligence kills people: more U.S. citizens died as a result of the war in Iraq, justified through bad intel obtained by torture, than died in 9/11—not even considering the far greater death and suffering of the Iraqi people, and the incredible second-order social, economic, and geopolitical costs of the conflict.

As a final example, consider the “extraordinary rendition” program: in order to keep America’s hands clean, it was a common practice, especially after 9/11, to send captured suspects to Mideast dictators in Egypt, Syria, and eventually Libya where they would be tortured on behalf of the U.S.  Of course, this was only made possible by supporting the relevant dictators (financially and otherwise), while turning a blind eye when aforementioned allies deployed these methods against their own citizens. This longstanding American support for oppressive regimes continues to provide ample fodder for jihadist recruiters, especially in the wake of the United States’ incoherent response to the so-called “Arab Spring,” which has proven to be a godsend for transnational mujahadeen.

Moreover, this hypocrisy dramatically undermines America’s ability to pressure other countries to comply with human rights laws. Consider: the U.S. was decrying China for spying on dissidents and carrying out espionage operations against corporate and state entities—that is, until the Snowden leaks revealed that the U.S. was carrying out many of the same actions on a scale and depth that China could never dream of: monitoring not only dissidents, but average citizens and world leaders in America and around the world. Needless to say, China no longer cared much about Washington’s position on this matter.

It is worth noting, in closing, that the Chinese Supreme Court recently passed a blanket ban on torture as an interrogation technique. That is, America is behind China on this human rights issue.  And while torture is condemned by virtually all international rules and norms, regardless of circumstance—inexplicably, America still reserves the “right” to rely on these methodologies. To what avail?

Traditionally, torture was used primarily for punishment, to elicit public confessions of guilt from those already condemned, and as a spectacle for deterrence purposes. In the “modern” age, it has been reappropriated in the service of “enhanced interrogation”—however, contemporary research suggests unequivocally that it is ineffective for these purposes. Consequently, it should be done away with.


Originally published 1/15/2014 by SISMEC

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