Torture Is Wrong, Illegal and It Doesn't Work

Regular people are understandably susceptible to falling for the Jack Bauer myth repeated by neo-cons and wannabe tough guy jocks of right-wing radio that torture saves lives.
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Actually torture is seriously wrong, seriously illegal AND IT SERIOUSLY DOESN'T WORK. Talking heads on TV or radio wouldn't even be able to still debate these propositions if we could simply go to the videotape. Attorney General Mukasey and Deputy Attorney General nominee Mark F. Filip wouldn't be able to pretend that they're stumped as to whether waterboarding is torture. And we'd be able to evaluate for ourselves whether there is any validity to the Jack Bauer "ticking time bomb" storyline instead of taking the word of the CIA agent who oversaw the torture operation and who, finally appreciating how wrong it was, desperately must seek to absolve his own guilt in the comforting 24 myth that torture saves lives.

So with the destruction of the videotapes, the debate we should never have had to have in this country continues. And the side of the debate that depends on misinformation thrives. It thrives in the midst of right-wing talk radio and FOX's Total Disinformation Awareness program, the lack of Woodward-Bernstein type investigative curiosity and the mainstream media's disinterest in exposing Bush administration crimes. I was only able to squeak in a couple of sound bites last week on MSNBC's Dan Abrams Show to convey how unbelievable and preposterous it is we are even having this discussion.


CIA agent Kiriakou's admissions that waterboarding is indeed torture did move most talking heads on to that third and final proposition of whether torture "works." A great many regular people who are not versed in the arts of intelligence gathering, criminal investigation, interview or interrogation are understandably susceptible to falling for the Jack Bauer myth repeated by the neo-cons and wannabe tough guy jocks of right-wing radio that torture saves lives. This is exactly where I would expect the trained FBI interviewers and other experienced criminal investigators in our country, those who, like myself, spent their careers preaching and practicing these principles, to come forth to explain why torture doesn't work. Sadly, FBI Director Robert Mueller's lips appear sealed and almost no one with real interviewing/interrogating skill/knowledge is speaking out.

I wasn't known as one of the FBI's expert interrogators -- that wasn't what I specialized in. Everyone in the FBI can point to the expert interrogators in each office. But over the years, as the issues regarding legal admissibility of confessions that I taught were intertwined, I attended and participated in many training sessions on what goes into effective interrogations. And I was well acquainted with many of the FBI's more "expert interrogators." Their existence alone is revealing. If all it took to get a confession or actionable, accurate intelligence was knowledge of how to strap someone to a waterboard or other "harsh interrogation" techniques, anyone and everyone whose conscience or lack thereof could do this type of thing for 35 seconds would instantly become an "expert interrogator," right? No schools of interrogation training would have ever sprung up. It's just not that easy.

Everyone should understand that FBI agents don't engage in torture because they are somehow kinder, gentler, more liberal or more squeamish than CIA agents or the CIA's hired contractors (thugs). The FBI doesn't do it -- in fact was ordered not to participate in torture -- for more pragmatic reasons. One of the more well known schools of interrogation for purposes of criminal investigation, the Reid School, has taught for decades, not how to break someone down physically -- which is easy to do but of almost no investigative or intelligence value -- but how to break through criminals' psychological defenses to get them to admit to a crime they may have committed. Breaking through such common criminal ego defenses as projection of blame on the victim and minimization of the crime are achieved mostly through the building of rapport, and also through a good understanding of the particular criminal psychology at issue. A form of slight trickery is almost always in play in that the criminal interviewer has to be able to "understand" and project empathy with someone who, in some cases, has committed heinous crimes. In most criminal "whodunits", an investigator has the added advantage of knowing details of the crime that only the culprit could know thus eliminating compulsive liars or other "false confessions" and corroborating the truth of what the suspect says.

Because intelligence gathering almost never has that same luxury of having known facts that can corroborate or refute someone's confession or statement, it makes it even more difficult to rely upon anything gathered as a result of coercion, much less torture, in a timely manner. That's why the ticking time bomb hypothetical, beyond its sheer rarity in real life, makes no sense. It's hard enough to get a confession when you have known facts that you can match it to. But what if the intelligence you are seeking can't be easily corroborated with known facts?


The FBI agent who reportedly had the best chance of foiling the 9/11 plot, Ali Soufan, the only Arabic-speaking agent in New York and one of only eight in the country, and who has since resigned from the FBI, could and should tell people the truth of how the CIA's tactics were counterproductive. A 2006 New Yorker article entitled "Missed Opportunities" described Soufan's tried and true techniques for interrogation of terrorist suspects thusly:

"He engaged the suspects; he won their respect; he debated them on theological issues. In interrogations he carried out just after 9/11, these techniques worked very well; he got crucial information about the hijackers and their connections. His methods were very different from the "extreme measures" that we've been hearing about -- waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation -- and that are being justified on the grounds that they're the only way to get this kind of information. Have we been given a false choice between abusing prisoners or letting something terrible happen?

Ali Soufan has shown that intelligent and careful interrogation can achieve real results. And it helps immensely, obviously, to have the language and cultural skills that he does. There are very few people in the American intelligence community that have his set of talents. The U.S. is known to have used these sorts of tactics. You mention the C.I.A.'s impulse has been to deliver Al Qaeda suspects to foreign intelligence agencies that could torture them and extract information the C.I.A. thought it couldn't otherwise obtain. However, what this abuse has yielded from the top Al Qaeda lieutenants is questionable. And I think that's because it's untrustworthy information obtained under torture.

So the problem with torture isn't just that it's torture -- that it compromises America ethically, morally--but that torture doesn't always work.

It doesn't work. It often is misleading, as in the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, an Al Qaeda lieutenant who was tortured into saying that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda and had weapons of mass destruction. That was the information that the U.S. was trying to get out of him, and he gave it to the interrogators under torture, and that became part of the rationale for the U.S. going to war with Iraq -- a disastrous consequence of choosing an unethical approach to gaining information."

So I would expect that Soufan's (as well as other FBI agents') actual reactions ranged from irritated to furious when inexperienced CIA people like Kiriakou pushed the experienced FBI interrogators aside and began their torture techniques. The CIA's methods were not only ineffective for getting valuable intelligence and other information that someone like Soufan could have potentially gotten; the CIA's torture stuff also really messed up any hope for criminal prosecution. Apparently it caused any number of CIA and/or DOJ and/or White House officials -- see Larry C. Johnson's "Who Obstructed Justice?" -- to lie to the Court and obstruct justice in the criminal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only terrorist to be prosecuted and convicted in the United States in connection with the 9/11 attacks. Along this line, I'm quite sure that many FBI agents were aware, from the start, that the CIA was engaging in waterboarding and other forms of torture. After speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early March 2003, I was no longer trusted by many agents in the FBI -- especially the macho SWAT guys group -- but I could tell what was going on. Small groups of two or three would gather to read aloud the sordid descriptions, laugh nervously and then, as I approached, lower their voices. So I never overheard much -- only once do I think I overheard a couple of words "cold, clammy flesh" -- but it was really just their nervous laughter that clued me in to what it was they were reading about. In any event, it would be rather remarkable if the criminal investigators and prosecutors in the Moussaoui case didn't know a lot more about the torture of Moussaoui's terrorist conspirators -- to include the videotaping--than they've let on.


Torture didn't even work for the Gestapo as Political Science Professor Darius Rejali explains in his excellent Washington Post opinion piece "5 Myths About Torture". A decade of researching for his book: Torture and Democracy, revealed just how unsuccessful the Gestapo's brutal efforts were. Senior leaders of the French, Danish, Polish and German resistance did not break and the Gestapo's overall results from torture were pathetic as compared with the intelligence results they got from public cooperation and informers. People understand the Gestapo's tactics were wrong and illegal but does everyone know they were also unsuccessful?

So the idea that torture saves lives, produces actionable intelligence, or reliable confessions, is like 24 -- pure fiction. It's just so sad that no one is telling the truth about it.

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