Torture As A Means Of Obtaining Reliable Information From Crime Suspect

Project and Seminar Material for Criminology And Security Studies

Torture As A Means Of Obtaining Reliable Information From Crime Suspect

Chapter One


1.1 Background of the Study

Governments sometimes characterize torture as an indispensable interrogation tool for gathering strategic intelligence. In this article, we review the relevant social scientific research on the effectiveness, impact, and causes of torture. First, we summarize research on false confessions and examine the relevance of that research for torture-based interrogations. Next, we review research on the mental health consequences of torture for survivors and perpetrators. Finally, we explore thesocial-psychological conditions that promote acts of cruelty (suchasthoseseen at Abu Ghraib) and examine the arguments typically offered to justify the use of torture. We argue that any hypothesized benefits from the use of torture must be weighed against the substantial proven costs of torture. These costs include the unreliable information extracted through interrogations using torture, the mental and emotional toll on victims and torturers, loss of international stature and credibility, and the risk of retaliation against soldiers and civilians.

Torture is one of the most extreme forms of human violence, resulting in both physical and psychological consequences. Torture has been used for thousands of years, and is still widespread, occurring throughout much of the world (Amnesty International, 2009). Research has shown that torture can have enduring negative effects on both survivors and perpetrators, and is ineffective for obtaining reliable information in interrogation. Although many international laws and codes have been established to prohibit torture, its widespread use continues as part of internal

conflicts within nations, as well as in international conflicts. The issue of torture has most recently stirred debate with respect to interrogation practices used by the United States.

In 2003, the world was stunned by a series of photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These photos, taken by U.S. soldiers on cell phones and digital cameras, depicted prisoners subjected to cruel and humiliating treatment at the hands of U.S. troops. In one photo, a handcuffed, terrified prisoner is shown cornered by a snarling military dog straining against its leash. In many photos, naked prisoners had been forced to lie on top of one another in a pile or to simulate sexual acts. Several pictures show naked, hooded inmates handcuffed in painful positions to beds and cell bars. Some inmates have bleeding wounds; others appear to have wires attached to their bodies (Hersh, 2004). Some photos were especially disturbing because they show soldiers (both men and women) posing next to the abused prisoners, grinning or giving “thumbs up” signs, appearing to take sadistic pleasure in the abuse. In responding to the outcry created by the photos, soldiers explained that they had been instructed to “soften up” prisoners for more systematic interrogation (Scherer & Benjamin, 2003).

At present the United States is engaged in what it has termed the “Global War on Terror.” In this effort many prisoners are taken by the US and its allies. Clearly some percentage of these prisoners may hold information which has the potential to: 1) prevent (or lessen the impacts of) terrorist acts against civilians; 2) prevent terrorist acts against military targets; 3) provide the means to break up the terrorist network(s); 4) provide the means to disrupt terrorist command and control activities. Similar situations may exist in many other areas of the world, such as Chechnya or Israel, where a recognized government is “at war” with terrorist organizations.

The governments or occupying powers hold an asymmetric relationship with the groups they are fighting. Decisions of the governments will be unilateral and any concessions toward humane treatment will not necessarily be reciprocated by the terrorist groups.

This paper does not directly examine issues of whether the detention of prisoners is justified, but rather the conduct of interrogation sessions and whether the use of torture in those sessions is ever justifiable.

1.1.1 Definitions
Dictionary definitions:

Interrogate: verb: 1 : to question formally and systematically [1]Torture: noun: 2 : the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure verb: 1 : to cause intense suffering to : TORMENT 2 : to punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain [2]

Other definitions:

[from 18 USC 113C Section 2340 US Anti-Torture Act]

  1. “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended toinflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
  2. “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from
    • The intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
    • The administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mindaltering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    • The threat of imminent death; or
    • The threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain orsuffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;

From the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

The definition of interrogate yields very little sense of the fact that subjects of interrogation do not generally want to divulge information. Interrogators often utilize coercive techniques to cause the subject to cede the desired information. These coercive techniques exist on a continuum from “direct questioning” through “torture” and “death”.[3]

1.2 Statement of the Problem

As early as the third century A.D., the great Roman Jurist Ulpian noted that information obtained through torture was not to be trusted because some people are “so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it” (Peters, 1996). This warning about the unreliability of information extracted through the use of torture has echoed across the centuries. As one CIA operative who participated in torture during the Vietnam War put it, “We had people who were willing to confess to anything if we would just stop torturing them” (Andersen, 2004, p. 3). Indeed, the Army Field Manual explains that strategically useful information is best obtained from prisoners who are treated humanely, and that information obtained through torture has produced faulty intelligence (Leahy, 2005).

It is important to acknowledge that torture may sometimes lead to the disclosure of accurate information. That is, confronted with excruciating pain, some people tell what they know. However, many survivors of torture report that the truthful information they revealed was intentionally incomplete or mixed with false information (Harbury, 2005). The goal was to appease the torturer, not to reveal the truth. And, because the interrogators were not omniscient, they could not discern which bits of information were true and which were false. Misreading their victims, torturers often failed to recognize the truth and continued to inflict pain. Victims continued to disclose, often fabricating information to in an effort to stop the pain (Conroy, 2000; Haritos-Fatouros, 2003). Many survivors of torture report that they would have said anything to “make the torture stop” (Mayer, 2005; McCoy, 2006). And, even in cases where torture may have preceded the disclosure of useful information, it is impossible to know whether less coercive forms of interrogation might have yielded the same or even better results.

1.3 Aim of the Study

The main aim of this study is to evaluate torture as a means of obtaining reliable information from crime suspects.

1.4 Significance of the Study

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the national and international public debate over the use of torture in interrogations has focused on legal and moral issues. Often overlooked is the psychology of torture and the substantial body of empirical research relevant to the debate. This study summarizes that empirical research and places the issue of torture in social-psychological context.

We begin by reviewing research on the psychology of coercive interrogations and the problem of false confessions. Next, we summarize the findings of research on the psychological impact of torture on victims and perpetrators. Finally, we place the issue of torture in context by exploring the situational factors that facilitate cruelty and the arguments used by governments and individuals to justify the use of torture.

This study will also benefit researchers and academicians carrying out research related to this study.

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Consequences and Alternatives

Governments that allow for the use of torture typically argue that it is used in a precise, strictly controlled manner. But scholars have found that once torture is authorized, its use is very difficult to contain. The distinguished historian Alfred McCoy (2006) has analyzed the use of torture over several centuries and has concluded that: “Once torture begins, it seems to spread uncontrollably, particularly during times of crisis, in a downward spiral” (p. 209). For example, in 1987 the Landau Commission in Israel authorized interrogators to use “moderate physical pressure” (e.g., shaking, placing suspects in painful positions for hours) but only if necessary to gather information that might prevent terrorist attacks. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, reports by human rights organizations in the 1990s revealed that approximately 85% of Palestinian detainees were being subjected to physical abuse (Evans & Morgan, 1998). In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the practice of “physical pressure.” It appears that if torture is seen as an acceptable tool of interrogation, the temptation to use that tool may be too strong to resist.
Although torture does not produce reliable information, it may persist because it satisfies psychological needs in times of stress. Specifically, it counters a sense of desperation, reassures interrogators that they are in control, and bestows a feeling of empowerment, at least in the enclosed world of the interrogation room (Carlsmith & Sood, 2009). As one scholar put it, “Even though torture is not, on balance, effective or rational, it persists through its deep psychological appeal, to the powerful and the powerless alike, in times of crisis” (McCoy, 2006, p. 207). Particularly in the aftermath of a horrible attack, like that which occurred on 9/11/2001, torture may be emotionally appealing. But it is worth considering whether the use of torture is truly motivated by a desire to gain valuable information, or by a desire to overcome a sense of powerlessness and to restore control, or even by a basic desire for revenge.

We do not yet know how many people have been tortured by the United States during its “war on terror.” We also do not yet know the full, long-term consequences of torture for American soldiers and citizens. Clearly, the photos from Abu Ghraib, there ports of abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and the accounts of people who have been tortured at black sites have severely damaged the moral authority of the United States (Kohut, 2007; Malinowski, 2008). But even from a short-term military perspective, the use of torture is likely to have counterproductive effects. The leadership of the Military has acknowledged that, “Not even a beaten enemy will surrender if he knows his captors will torture or kill him. He will resist and make his capture more costly. Fair treatment encourages the enemy to surrender” (Conroy, 2000, p. 115).

Finally, there is the problem of retaliation. In 2003, after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, a reporter asked a young Iraqi man about the reasons for the rise in violence against U.S. soldiers. His response emphasized the imperative for revenge:

It is a shame for foreigners to put a bag over their heads, to make a man lie on the ground with your shoe on his neck…This is a great shame for the whole tribe. It is the duty of that man, and of our tribe, to get revenge on that soldier—to kill that man. Their duty is to attack them, to wash the shame. The shame is a stain, a dirty thing—they have to wash it. We cannot sleep until we have revenge (Danner, 2005, p. 12).

This is not merely the isolated response of one man. Summarizing decades of research on torture survivors, a leading scholar concluded that torture “…generates intense hatred and desire for vengeance against the perpetrators, radicalizing even ordinary people with no strong political views” (Basoglu, 2009, p. 142).

New and ongoing national and international efforts are addressing the practice of torture. In the United States, an ongoing legislative effort to help the recovery of survivors of torture, the Torture Victims Relief Act, is due to be reauthorized this year. This bill supports assistance for domestic and foreign programs and centers for the treatment of victims of torture. Additionally, Congressional efforts are underway to close a loophole in legal prosecution of crimes against humanity, and to investigate torture-related actions that may have been in violation of national or international laws.

As was reported to the U.S. Helsinki Commission by representatives of the Physicians for Human Rights (Keller, 2008), policies must be established to undo any illegal actions that have been taken by the United States and its allies. Such policies would include the establishment of uniform codes of conduct prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the reparation for past torture of detainees, investigations of criminal conduct related to torture, and support for the physical and psychological recovery of survivors.

All countries have a responsibility to uphold the international and national human rights treaties that they have signed, and advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and others work to shed light on abuses and to hold those who violate the treaties accountable. Similarly, international authorities, such as the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, should be supported in their efforts to monitor abuses in places of detention and their findings should be widely reported.

With many policy or political issues, there are ambiguities that lead to the necessity of compromise. This is not the case with the policy of torture. Based on the available facts and research findings, it is clear that the use of torture-based interrogations should end. Torture-based interrogations are ineffective as a means of extracting reliable information and are likely to produce faulty intelligence. Torture has severe, long-term negative consequences for survivors, perpetrators, and communities. More broadly, the use of torture has far-reaching consequences: it damages the reputation of the United States, creates hostility toward our troops, provides a rationale for cruelty against U.S. soldiers and citizens, places the United States in the company of some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, and undermines our credibility when we argue for international human rights or any moral imperative. Any purported benefits of torture must be weighed against these substantial proven costs.

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