Why We Torture

Co-authored by Catherine Langlois, Professor of economics and university Obmudsmen at Georgetown University

The debate on the use of torture has taken on an all-too-familiar face with the release of the Senate Committee Report on CIA interrogation methods. While the universal stigma against torture stems from its transgressions against human dignity, the public debate focuses on the value of information extracted through torture. Senator Cornyn recently stated that information gleaned from torture "saved American lives." Agreeing, former CIA Director Brennan stated that torture produced "intelligence that helped thwart attack plans" and "capture terrorists." On the other side of the debate, most members of the intelligence community consistently criticize the reliability of information produced by torture. The US Army's manual on interrogation states that torture "yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear." Senator McCain, a torture victim, stated he knows "from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence."

Our research argues that the two sides talk past each other because they hold different perspectives on intelligence mistakes. In order to understand states' willingness to use methods like torture that produce unreliable information, we need to appreciate how states value the two types of intelligence errors: omission and commission. In an error of commission, intelligence information justifies an act that turns out to be mistaken. For example, a suspected terrorist is killed but later found to have no ties to terrorism. In errors of omission, intelligence information fails to identify a threat that does occur, such as the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. If a state is pathologically focused on avoiding errors of omission it will become so desperate for intelligence that it is willing to use unreliable information, even if it means employing proscribed methods such as torture to obtain it.

For the Bush Administration, the failure to predict and prevent 9/11 was so personally and politically traumatic that members were willing to do anything to obtain information that might help to decrease the likelihood of making another error of omission. As a result, the Administration acted forcefully on sketchy data produced through torture. This was not everyone's response to 9/11; opinion surveys showed that a majority of Americans, even right after 9/11, did not support torture. But in the wake of a shocking and deadly attack on the homeland under its watch, Bush Administration priorities became singularly biased towards eliminating errors of omission, supporting extreme interrogation methods in order to produce additional, albeit undependable, intelligence. Later, the Obama Administration, operating against a more reduced Al Qaeda threat, was able to scale back reliance on unreliable information and thus minimize the need for coercive interrogation.

Democratic states that profess to care greatly about human rights employ torture because of an all-consuming fear of failing to identify and stop potential security threats. This fear translates into a frantic need for information that supersedes both its reliability and the acceptability of the techniques employed to obtain it. Given this ascension of information needs, additional emphasis on the normative prohibitions against torture to states that already view it as immoral is unlikely to curb its use. Rather, a balanced approach that does not focus exclusively on avoiding errors of omission eliminates the information-based incentive that supports torture. Conversely, excessive attention to national security mistakes of omission, such as Benghazi and 9/11, may distort this balance and inadvertently lead to support for the use of torture by fueling the desperate need to obtain any and all intelligence available to avoid these types of mistakes in the future.

Intelligence is never perfect -- mistakes will be made. Extreme fear of one type of intelligence mistake, however, has repercussion not only on the likelihood of committing the other type of error but in the value of information and the methods used to obtain it. Stopping torture requires a balanced perspective on intelligence errors.