November 10, 2006
The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-2
(See part 1 here.)
In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb and points out that there is little evidence that useful information is gleaned from torturing this or that individual.
This scenario still rests on the critical, utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence quickly from this or any hardened terrorist.
Advocates of the ticking bomb often cite the brutal torture of Abdul Hakim Murad in Manila in 1995, which they say stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent passengers. Except, of course, for the simple fact that Murad’s torture did nothing of the sort. As The Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the sixty-seven days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.
McCoy says that "After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain."
He cites, as an example of the damage caused by the weak saying anything that they think the captors want to hear, the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, who under torture
told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. This raises the possibility that he, like Murad, had been tortured into giving fabricated intelligence. Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War."
As Yale legal historian John Langbein puts it, “History’s most important lesson is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth.”
Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathetic interrogation. U.S. Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Saipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win U.S. court convictions of all of the accused.
One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA’s coercive methods after 9/11. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” Coleman asked. “He’s going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.
Bush’s example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman’s point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.
McCoy argues that allowing for torture even in very limited cases almost guarantees that the practice will expand and grow.
Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. “You can’t know whether a person knows where the bomb is,” explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, “or even if they’re telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general.”
It is not that torture never works but the history of torture suggests that in order to get a few bits of useful information, you have to throw a wide net for torture victims. McCoy points out a few cases in Vietnam and Algeria where mass torturing has worked. "Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence."
But indiscriminate and widespread torturing of people many of whom are bound to be innocent is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given current trends, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that. All it would seem to require to gain approval from the US public and policymakers is for the scriptwriters of 24 Hours to have in the next season a storyline where Jack Bauer goes on a mass torturing rampage and despite leaving a long trail of broken human beings, succeeds in foiling some diabolical plot.