Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Logic Of Torture

There are two main reasons that people are opposed to the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. First, the moral argument: Torture is a violation of liberal moral and ethical norms. The use of violence and cruelty by the state betrays our most deeply held values and ideals. Second, the pragmatic argument: Torture doesn't work, so it's not worth the damage to a country's public image. In this argument, a suspect being subjected to torture will say anything and everything to end the ordeal, and therefore evidence procured through torture is useless.

Interestingly, while the first argument may be the most powerful, many anti-torture advocates have moved to the second argument, primarily because the first leaves room for a utilitarian calculus. Yes, torture may be abhorrent to our liberal norms, but if, in extreme circumstances, such as the "ticking time bomb" scenario, the use of torture can prevent a large number of deaths or protect the larger fabric of society, its use may be justified. So, to avoid such leaving open such a possibility, many arguments against torture make the pragmatic argument: Torture doesn't work, and its use is damaging to the soft power of a liberal democratic state (as happened in the Abu Ghraib incident).

I have blogged many times (here, here, and here, for example) about torture and how I do not buy the logic of the pragmatic argument. Simply put: If torture doesn't work, then why is its use even a question? If it's so obvious to everyone that torture produces false confessions and made-up evidence, then why would those tasked with preventing terrorism and protecting their countries even want to use torture? Why would they waste their time pursuing false leads? It simply makes no logical sense. I have much more sympathy for the moral argument, although I also find logic in the argument for allowing the use of coercive interrogation tactics (and no, this is not just a euphemism...I'll explain more about this below) in certain circumstances.

So, I was quite excited for a lecture by Yohai Kitron, the former Chief of Interrogation of the Shabak (the Israeli FBI, more or less, also known as the Shin Bet) entitled The Failed Logic of Torture. At last, I thought, I'd get the real answer as to why torture is ineffective.

Mr. Kitron, however, did not make that argument. First, he differentiated between torture, which is the sadistic use of cruelty, and coercive interrogation, which is the controlled use of violence (or the threat of violence) to further an interrogation by undermining the mental safety and security of the suspect. Mr. Kitron claimed that while coercive interrogation is no more effective than non-coercive methods, it is most certainly faster. Thus, Israel now only uses coercive methods in "ticking bomb" scenarios, for example if a suspected terrorist in custody is believed to have information about a suicide bomber on his way to a target.

In such scenarios, the interrogator does not, under any circumstances, have the authority to use coercive methods on his own account. Rather, the interrogator must seek permission from the Legal Department of the Israeli Army, which is in turn subordinated to the Attorney General's office. Each interrogator bears personal responsibility for any force used; even if the circumstances dictate an ex post justification, such as the claim that there wasn't time to seek authorization, the interrogator will be reprimanded and punished, severely when the use of force cannot be justified (Kitron spoke of two Shin Bet officers sentenced to 8 years in prison for the unauthorized use of coercive interrogation).

Kitron emphasized the difference between an investigation and an interrogation. An investigation has a much longer time line, and is intended to produce information to further counter-terrorism and prevention efforts. An interrogation is when time-sensitive information is sought, such as to prevent an imminent terror attack. Coercive interrogation techniques can and should only be used in interrogations and only when the interrogation is necessary to prevent death. Coercive methods are not likely to be helpful in investigations, as suspects can provide much less specific information that may not be able to be verified and thus are more likely to say anything to end their ordeal.

Kitron was clear that coercive methods are immoral and damaging both to the society and the individual that uses them. Using them too often threatens to undermine democratic norms, damage the public image of the country, and do serious damage to the fabric of a democracy. However, just as the failure to protect individual rights undermines democracy, so does the failure to provide security. In a country that has suffered a sustained campaign of suicide bombings, rocket attacks, kidnappings, and other attacks against its citizens and soldiers, it's not hard to see why a method that might help prevent such attacks would be used, even if it is morally questionable.

However, the US is not Israel. There are few scenarios in which coercive methods would be needed by US security forces. There is no sustained campaign of suicide attacks within this country, no steady rain of rockets on our towns. Most of the time when terror suspects are in custody it is an investigation, not an interrogation. In these cases, as Kitron made clear, a good investigator can get the same, if not better, information using non-coercive, non-violent methods, and thus it's not worth the damage to American democratic norms, liberal ideals, and public image to use violence, coercive methods, or torture.

However, the option needs to be left open in case the scenario presents itself where a terrorist in custody does have knowledge of an imminent attack. This seems to be the result of the anti-torture amendment passed by Congress and signed by the president in December 2006. Torture is not allowed, although coercive interrogation techniques are still on the table. The president needs to realize the damage that even coercive interrogation can do to the US public image, and reserve its use for only the most drastic and critical of situations.


WeeZie said...


Perhaps the reason why governments still use torture is because for them, a confession they understand is not true still meets their political goals. If the nation is fighting a war on terror, well than the public DEMANDS that some of these "terrorists" are caught and brought to justice. By way of torture and false confessions, the government can argue that it is doing its job and protecting you. That does not seem too illogical an idea.

Unless you argue that such tactics are beyond the good will of states who would never use things such as false confessions and entrapment (I.E, almost every domestic terrorism case since 9/11) to make a statement.

Seth Weinberger said...

Sorry, Weezie, but I don't buy your argument. Not that I believe states would be above such things, but if the state is just trying to get a false confession, then why would it need to use torture? It would be easy enough to manipulate evidence, and the PR cost from using torture would seem too high for such a secondary goal. And if it's really trying to prevent future terror attacks (which I do believe most states are trying to do), what good would a false confession do?

WeeZie said...

Can you honestly sit behind your keyboard and say that when Khalid Sheik Muhammad confessed to all those things and he was being honest . . . that is good intelligence?
States attempt to hide the fact that they use torture, they call it "uncomfortable interrogation tactics"
The point is, of course to thwart off future attacks, that is the number one priority...but when you are launching a "war on terror" and you justify two occupations and supported another on that pretexts, than your populace expects for some results. When these results are not to be found, they are concocted.
Do you not agree that the intelligence services use entrapment?
In particular, you might want to check on the “Lodi Terrorists” Hamid and Umer Hayat, who confessed to a slew of things, including, a supposed al-Qaeda training camp populated by a thousand men doing "pole vault" practice in ninja masks

I will copy and paste for the sake of convenience.
“In February 2006, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told Congress, "A network of Islamic extremists in Lodi maintained connections with Pakistani militant groups, recruited U.S. citizens, … [and] allegedly raised funds for international jihadist groups."
However, upon close examination and interviews with top law enforcement officials involved in the case, Bergman discovers that the case highly touted by US counter-terror officials as a significant al Qaeda bust amounted to little more than entrapment and coerced and fabricated confessions from two men who, in fact, had nothing to do with the terrorist group.”

WeeZie said...

but the source of this investigation is of course PBS, which shouldnt be trusted since it doesnt have a FOX type system.

Here is the Frontline video if you care to watch

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