Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College and
the author of the recently published "Torture and Democracy."
*5 Myths About Torture and Truth*
Myths About Torture and Truth
By Darius Rejali
Sunday, December 16, 2007; B03
/So the CIA did indeed torture Abu Zubaida, the first al-Qaeda terrorist
suspect to have been waterboarded. So says John Kiriakou, the first
former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of "high-value"
al-Qaeda detainees to speak out publicly. He minced no words last week
in calling the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" what they are./
/But did they work? Torture's defenders, including the wannabe tough
guys who write Fox's "24," insist that the rough stuff gets results. "It
was like flipping a switch," said Kiriakou about Abu Zubaida's response
to being waterboarded. But the al-Qaeda operative's confessions --
descriptions of fantastic plots from a man who intelligence analysts
were convinced was mentally ill -- probably didn't give the CIA any
actionable intelligence. Of course, we may never know the whole truth,
since the CIA destroyed the videotapes of Abu Zubaida's interrogation./
/But here are some other myths that are bound to come up as the debate
over torture rages on./
1 /Torture worked for the Gestapo./
Actually, no. Even Hitler's notorious secret police got most of their
information from public tips, informers and interagency cooperation.
That was still more than enough to let the Gestapo decimate anti-Nazi
resistance in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France,
Russia and the concentration camps.
Yes, the Gestapo did torture people for intelligence, especially in
many seasoned professionals to World War II, increasingly desperate
competition for intelligence among Gestapo units and an influx of less
disciplined younger members. (Why do serious, tedious police work when
you have a uniform and a whip?) It's surprising how unsuccessful the
Gestapo's brutal efforts were. They failed to break senior leaders of
the French, Danish, Polish and German resistance. I've spent more than a
decade collecting all the cases of Gestapo torture "successes" in
multiple languages; the number is small and the results pathetic,
especially compared with the devastating effects of public cooperation
2 /Everyone talks sooner or later under torture./
Truth is, it's surprisingly hard to get anything under torture, true or
false. For example, between 1500 and 1750, French prosecutors tried to
torture confessions out of 785 individuals. Torture was legal back then,
and the records document such practices as the bone-crushing use of
splints, pumping stomachs with water until they swelled and pouring
boiling oil on the feet. But the number of prisoners who said anything
was low, from 3 percent in Paris to 14 percent in Toulouse (an
exceptional high). Most of the time, the torturers were unable to get
any statement whatsoever.
And such examples could be multiplied. The Japanese fascists, no
strangers to torture, said it best in their field manual, which was
found in Burma during World War II: They described torture as the
clumsiest possible method of gathering intelligence. Like most sensible
torturers, they preferred to use torture for intimidation, not information.
3 /People will say anything under torture./
Well, no, although this is a favorite chestnut of torture's foes. Think
about it: Sure, someone would lie under torture, but wouldn't they also
lie if they were being interrogated without coercion?
In fact, the problem of torture does not stem from the prisoner who
/has/ information; it stems from the prisoner who doesn't. Such a person
is also likely to lie, to say anything, often convincingly. The torture
of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation, but
the torture of the ignorant and innocent overwhelms investigators with
misleading information. In these cases, nothing is indeed preferable to
anything. Anything needs to be verified, and the CIA's own 1963
interrogation manual explains that "a time-consuming delay results" --
hardly useful when every moment matters.
Intelligence gathering is especially vulnerable to this problem. When
police officers torture, they know what the crime is, and all they want
is the confession. When intelligence officers torture, they must gather
information about what they don't know.
4 /Most people can tell when someone is lying under torture./
Not so -- and we know quite a bit about this. For about 40 years,
psychologists have been testing police officers as well as normal people
to see whether they can spot lies, and the results aren't encouraging.
Ordinary folk have an accuracy rate of about 57 percent, which is pretty
poor considering that 50 percent is the flip of a coin. Likewise, the
cops' accuracy rates fall between 45 percent and 65 percent -- that is,
sometimes less accurate than a coin toss.
Why does this matter? Because even if torturers break a person, they
have to recognize it, and most of the time they can't. Torturers assume
too much and reject what doesn't fit their assumptions. For instance,
Sheila Cassidy, a British physician, cracked under electric-shock
torture by the Chilean secret service in the 1970s and identified
priests who had helped the country's socialist opposition. But her
devout interrogators couldn't believe that priests would ever help the
socialists, so they tortured her for another week until they finally
became convinced. By that time, she was so damaged that she couldn't
remember the location of the safe house.
In fact, most torturers are nowhere near as well trained for
interrogation as police are. Torturers are usually chosen because
they've endured hardship and pain, fought with courage, kept secrets,
held the right beliefs and earned a reputation as trustworthy and loyal.
They often rely on folklore about what lying behavior looks like --
shifty eyes, sweaty palms and so on. And, not surprisingly, they make a
lot of mistakes.
5 /You can train people to resist torture./
Supposedly, this is why we can't know what the CIA's "enhanced
interrogation techniques" are: If Washington admits that it waterboards
suspected terrorists, al-Qaeda will set up "waterboarding-resistance
camps" across the world. Be that as it may, the truth is that no
training will help the bad guys.
Simply put, nothing predicts the outcome of one's resistance to pain
better than one's own personality. Against some personalities, nothing
works; against others, practically anything does. Studies of hundreds of
detainees who broke under Soviet and Chinese torture, including
Army-funded studies of U.S. prisoners of war, conclude that during,
before and after torture, each prisoner displayed strengths and
weaknesses dependent on his or her own character. The CIA's own "Human
Resources Exploitation Manual" from 1983 and its so-called Kubark manual
from 1963 agree. In all matters relating to pain, says Kubark, the
"individual remains the determinant."
The thing that's most clear from torture-victim studies is that you
can't train for the ordeal. There is no secret knowledge out there about
how to resist torture. Yes, there are manuals, such as the IRA's "Green
Book," the anti-Soviet "Manual for Psychiatry for Dissidents" and
"Torture and the Interrogation Experience," an Iranian guerrilla manual
from the 1970s. But none of these volumes contains specific techniques
of resistance, just general encouragement to hang tough. Even al-Qaeda's
vaunted terrorist-training manual offers no tips on how to resist
torture, and al-Qaeda was no stranger to the brutal methods of the Saudi
And yet these myths persist. "The larger problem here, I think," one
active CIA officer observed in 2005, "is that this kind of stuff just
makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work."