Empirical Evidence about Torture

by Jon Mandle on September 18, 2006

I’m a little late with this, and others have written about it, but it’s worth repeating over and over again….

The new Army Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector Operations prohibits the use of specific interrogation techniques including water boarding, electrical shock, burning, beating, mock executions – you know, the usual. The Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence Lt. General Jeff Kimmons clarified during a press conference that “interrogation” refers to “getting truthful answers to time-sensitive questions on the battlefield” and that the manual applies “all detainees, regardless of their status under all circumstances.”

A reporter pointed out that “some of the tactics that were used in particular in Guantanamo Bay … are now prohibited” and asked, “does that limit the ability of interrogators to get information that could be very useful?”

GEN. KIMMONS: Let me answer the first question. That’s a good question. I think — I am absolutely convinced the answer to your first question is no. No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that.

And moreover, any piece of intelligence which is obtained under duress, under — through the use of abusive techniques would be of questionable credibility. And additionally, it would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used. And we can’t afford to go there.

So just to clarify: we now have empirical evidence from that last five years that “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices” including in the “time-sensitive” circumstances of the battlefield.

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Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Empirical Evidence About Torture
09.20.06 at 9:33 am



abb1 09.18.06 at 2:18 pm

I don’t know, I’m skeptical about the “torture doesn’t work” claim. I seem to remember in the beginning of Battle of Algiers – it’s been a while since I watched it – I think the film begins with a scene where captured and waterboarded guy leads the French to the hiding place of the last group of the insurgency leaders. I’m pretty sure torture works at least in some cases, but so what? It doesn’t make it less barbaric.


Asteele 09.18.06 at 2:45 pm

My understanding is the actual record of torture in Algiers is decidedly mixed. The French military likes to pretend that it was effective, because “we did these horrible things but got results”, is easier for them (the french) to deal with psycologically then: “we did these horrible things that were mostly useless.” Also, just because you “can” get information by torture, doesn’t mean you won’t get the same or better information by not torture.


Francis 09.18.06 at 2:59 pm

re post no 1:

It’s generally not a good idea to set public policy based on what you see in the movies.


kharris 09.18.06 at 3:09 pm

I’d just like to offer my appreciation. Liguistics, baby sitting, teaching modern continental thought – those are all good topics for the philosophically minded. It is topics like this one, though, that justify the space in classrooms, on library shelves and in gray matter.

This topic needs all the honest intellectual attention it can get. What is “vague” about US law, regulation and tradition regarding the Geneva convetion? What is the record of information gathering through torture? Who, in the past, has turned to torture and who has turned away?


P O'Neill 09.18.06 at 3:28 pm

It’s clear that the weekend Republican talking points were to deemphasise any specific technique or the efficacy thereof, and to claim that using female interrogators on Islamist militants could violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.


abb1 09.18.06 at 3:38 pm

It’s generally not a good idea to set public policy based on what you see in the movies.

Well, it’s supposed to be a more or less accurate depiction of history, of real events. The French did use torture there and, according to wikipedia:

[retired French Army General Paul] Aussaresses provoked an enormous controversy in 2000, when in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, he defended the use of torture during the Algerian war. He repeated the defense in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, further arguing that torture ought to be used in the fight against Al-Qaeda, and again defended his use of torture during the Algerian war in a 2001 book, “The Battle of the Casbah”. In the aftermath of the controversy, he was stripped of his rank and the right to wear his military uniform, and French President Jacques Chirac stripped him of his Legion d’Honneur. Aussaresses remained defiant, and dismissed the latter act as hypocritical.

Read the whole thing.


Jim Harrison 09.18.06 at 4:18 pm

Republican support for torture is part of their values agenda. The possible benefits or drawbacks of the practice are of marginal interest to them.


mpowell 09.18.06 at 4:19 pm

I find it pretty difficult to disagree that in a specific circumstance, when you have a strong suspicion that a person in custody knows the specific location of something you want, that torture might be the most effective technique to getting that information.

At the same time, from the perspective of a general, it is absolutely true that incorporating torture as an army practice does not yield good info. There are reasons specific to the act of extracting info from torture for why this is so, and reasons related to the culture that torture creates among its practicioners as well. So I appreciate the general’s comments for their political impact and their truthfulness.

I don’t think there’s any question as to whether we should be practicing torture. The question I have is when convincing the rest of america that this is true, how willing should we be to grant the specific example where it might be effective? If you try to argue that it doesn’t exist and you fail to persuade, your entire case might fail even though it doesn’t depend on that point.


CJColucci 09.18.06 at 4:29 pm

Why does the U.S. Army hate America?


anon 09.18.06 at 4:40 pm

I think almost everyone here can agree that
the Nazi’s were complete moral bankrupts.

Yet the most effective German interrogator of WWII
did not resort to torture to obtain actionable and
valid intelligence.

[See “The Interrogator” by Raymond Toliver
ISBN 0-7643-0261-2]


Since I didn’t use a Nazi ANALOGY, does this post
violate Godwin’s Rule?


Kevin Donoghue 09.18.06 at 4:41 pm

Abb1, M. Powell,

Now and then a “ticking bomb” scenario does arise. I recall a case where the location of a kidnap victim was revealed by a detainee who was almost certainly in a lot of pain when he talked. But even from a purely utilitarian viewpoint such cases are a poor argument for changing the law, because a policeman who breaks the law in a situation like that is unlikely to be charged and even less likely to be convicted. The pragmatic approach is to keep torture illegal and rely on the flexibility of prosecutors and juries to take care of exceptional cases.


MMJQ 09.18.06 at 5:14 pm

It’s possible that torture can work if the torture subject is known to have specific information that can be tested, but that seems like an uncommon scenario. In modern day situations, what kind of questions is the Army asking:

Where is person X?
What are you planning?

The answers to these kinds of questions cannot be easily tested. What’s more is that, under duress, their non-specific nature is likely to yield bad information that would send investigators on a wild-goose chase.


pedro 09.18.06 at 5:43 pm

Torture emphatically produces information; whether it produces reliable information is a completely different issue. And this issue should bear little relevance in the discussion of whether the government should sanction its practice. Call me a values voter, but I’m far more invested on the moral grounds that justify banning torture than I am on the proposition that it may be an inefficient and counterproductive practice. In a matter like torture, consequentialism be damned. It is a moral matter, not an issue to be analyzed in a way akin to the one eugenics was analyzed a few decades ago by some people Godwin’s law prevents me from mentioning. (Btw, is this an ingenuous violation of Godwin’s law, or what?)


Doctor Slack 09.18.06 at 5:49 pm

abb1: Wow, a movie that’s supposed to be a representation of true events and a WikiPedia article featuring a former torturer defending his practices. That’s getting more convincing by the minute.

Of course it’s a cliche to point out, on threads like this, that it’s completely surreal to have American reporters asking questions like that in all seriousness. But, well…


soru 09.18.06 at 5:59 pm

a policeman who breaks the law in a situation like that is unlikely to be charged and even less likely to be convicted

I fear you may be under-estimating the willingness of certain parties to launch a clearly unreasonable prosecution with the goal of undermining public support for the law.


Lee 09.18.06 at 8:42 pm

So will we say that pro-torture people are ignorant, vicious, or both?


Adam Kotsko 09.18.06 at 10:02 pm

We knew before the War on Terror that torture doesn’t work. It’s not like this was all some big experiment and now it’s finally settled.

Or maybe one of the things that changed on 9/11 was that suddenly torture became a magical truth-producing ritual rather than an offense against the human dignity of the victim and the perpetrator alike. Curse me and my pre-9/11 mindset!


BCist 09.18.06 at 11:58 pm

Just a point of clairification:

“Godwin’s Law is a natural law of Usenet named after Mike Godwin (godwin@eff.org) concerning Usenet “discussions”. It reads, according to the Jargon File:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”


calmo 09.19.06 at 12:19 am

If it were possible to conceal the activity so that torture was never witnessed or discovered, my case that it is primarily about population control rather than administering punishment to some individuals, falls apart.
But the message is always leaked or suspected with disappearances, no?
It is in the state’s interest to demonstrate its power to obtain compliant behavior it cannot obtain otherwise, yes?
This torture could happen to you, fellow citizen. So respect your place and relative position you dog or face the consequences. Isn’t this the principal feature, the political dynamic, of state sponsored torture?
The sociology provides the framework for understanding otherwise merely wanton human abuse.


abb1 09.19.06 at 1:22 am

Well, all right, let me clarify: forget Algiers, I have no idea whether torture does or doesn’t work; and I suspect it might work under some circumstances.

I was trying to say what Pedro said in #13: it doesn’t matter, it’s not the point, it shouldn’t be.

To come out against cannibalism you don’t have to begin pretending that human flesh is poisonous, there are other reasons.


roy belmont 09.19.06 at 1:23 am

Torture’s immoral unless, you know, it works.
It’s only moral if it works.
If it doesn’t work it’s immoral and also if there’s another way that doesn’t hurt so bad you should use that first unless there’s a ticking noise somewhere. But only then.
So, you know, it’s not okay, unless, you know, you have to.
Then it’s okay.
Cowardice is actually a survival trait, did you know that?
Cowardice works.
Most of the things people have traditionally considered to be immoral actually, you know, work.

* * *

Arguing with the men and boys who have been running the Iraq debacle/fiasco on the merits of their given reasons for doing anything is, you know, lame, and a particularly nauseating form of privileged denial.
Maybe, just maybe, they’re being dishonest about torture too?
Why they’re doing it and stuff? Maybe it’s not for why they’re saying?
You think?


Saint Fnordius 09.19.06 at 2:57 am

The actual lessons from Algiers were that torture was a detriment to getting information. It resulted in so much false information that the actual bits won were lost in the heap of lies. It also lowered the willingness of witnesses to come forward, since they were afraid of getting tortured as well. Torture also awakes an instinctive resistance in the interrogated subject, something known since Aesop’s time (see the fable of the wind and the sun).

So in the end torture hurts the ability to gather information, as it brings forth more lies, takes longer to get information, and erases the desire to cooperate.

This was all documented in the US Army’s interrogation manuals before, but the lesson was lost when untrained individuals were assigned, led by an uncaring administration bent on revenge.


Patrick 09.19.06 at 4:01 pm

Here is a website that provides an easy way to write to your senators to tell them not to give a free pass for torture and war crimes (from JustForeignPolicy.org)



roy belmont 09.19.06 at 4:58 pm

The official given reason for torture being the extraction of information, ipso facto – torture doesn’t work.
But wait, are there are other motives? Other reasons to torture?
Let’s see…
“…an uncaring administration bent on revenge…” hmmm. Define “administration” as used in that phrase.
Something that’s rarely allowed into polite debates on Iraq is the possibility that the current state of affairs there was intended all along.
Bush thus sufficing nicely as sin-eater; and – quickly now – off he goes.
Revenge may well be a motive worth pursuing as cause for these heinous issues, but you’ll have to dig a little deeper than that mindless scapegoat currently twisting in the wind over Pennsylvania Ave. to get to the heart of things.


Kelly 09.19.06 at 6:14 pm

Sort of following up with post #3 and #4, the biggest talking point I’ve heard in the last few days is exactly how do you determine what an outrage upon human dignity is? Bush actually said that it needs to be re-written because “it’s vague – what does that mean?” Rather to my chagrin, when I was asked to define what human dignity is “simply, so anyone can understand”, I couldn’t.

Can anyone? Or is the claim that, for example, a female interrogator violates the human dignity of some people a valid claim?


JR 09.19.06 at 9:02 pm

The Israeli Supreme Court, when it ruled that torture is illegal, dealt with the ticking time bomb scenario definitively. As it explained, torture constitutes the crime of battery – an unpermitted touching that causes injury. What makes it torture is that the torturer has a certain intent in committing the battery, but that doesn’t justify the crime. Now, it is a defense to battery that the defendant committed the act to protect a third person. For example, if A is about to shoot B and C knocks A down, C may defend against the charge that he committed a battery on A by showing that he did so to protect B. So, in the event of a genuine ticking time bomb situation, the policeman who commits an act of torture will later defend himself by showing that he acted to protect the lives of third persons. But this a defense to a specific charge in the context of a specific event, not an a priori blanket justification of all torture.


abb1 09.20.06 at 3:15 am

I was asked to define what human dignity is “simply, so anyone can understand”, I couldn’t.

That’s why we have judges and juries – to decide if something is ‘reasonable’ or ‘excessive’ or ‘unbecoming’ or an ‘outrage’.


what? 09.21.06 at 4:29 am

Ever thought that the General might be dissembling for PR purposes? Don’t be naive.

Indeed, the CIA according to Brian Ross makes contrary assertions:


If your empirical evidence consists of only selective sources to the exclusion of those that refute your preconceived ideas about the efficacy of torture, then you’re not much of an empiricist. Rather an ideologue.

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