Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Wikipedia's Effectiveness of torture for interrogation says,

Torture has been used throughout history for the purpose of obtaining information in interrogation. Some arguments say that it is an effective way of making someone divulge vital information whilst others say it is [violent, horrific and] useless.

It links to a New York Times article, Interrogations’ Effectiveness May Prove Elusive, which includes opinions from both sides of the debate.

So, completely disregarding moral aspects and other consequences, is torture useful in interrogation? Is it feasible to torture accurate information out of people? Is it feasible to determine whether the information is likely accurate without outside confirmation?

Also related would be whether other interrogation techniques are better at extracting accurate information and confirming its accuracy.

share|improve this question
78  
@WernerSchmitt: While I'm strongly anti-torture, I'm also strongly anti-censorship. How can one argue against torture if your not willing to take a hard look at whether it works? Pro-torture advocates would dismiss one's position as naive for not addressing their arguments. –  Mark Rogers Jun 11 '11 at 17:14
44  
Werner, some people will argue that torture is unethical whether it is effective or not. Some people will argue that the ends justify the means. If it can be shown that torture is ineffective, these two moral positions align. So, to me it seems to be a perfectly reasonable question to be addressed. –  Oddthinking Jun 11 '11 at 17:16
19  
One thing to keep in mind is that most people ask this question operating under the assumption that the person being interrogated actually knows something, which is often not the case. If they don't know anything or know very little, they will just make stuff up in order to make the torture stop because they know it will continue if they tell the truth, which is that they know nothing. Even if it were the case that torture was more effective against people who actually knew something, any benefits would offset by false information gotten from those who just made things up. –  Michael Jun 11 '11 at 19:05
13  
@Werner "obviously it works" [citation-needed] This isn't a "Skeptics" for nothing... –  corsiKa Jun 12 '11 at 2:24
10  
@Captain Claptrap "Everybody knows that." I don't. Have you any evidence? Bullies don't use torture to extract useful information; they use it (well, a childish form of it) to extract money and for personal gratification, neither of which are relevant. –  Oddthinking Jun 12 '11 at 2:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 492 down vote accepted

Short answer: Your friends who think torture is effective at getting reliable information are wrong.

Army Field Manual 34-52 Chapter 1 says:

“Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

The C.I.A.’s 1963 interrogation manual stated:

Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.

The act of torturing can even interfere with a subject's ability to tell the truth.

Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or 'enhanced' interrogation.

This Newsweek article also links to the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin that has a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science. It will cost you nearly $40 for the paper itself though.

In specifically dealing with the post 9/11 world, a work entitled A utilitarian argument against torture interrogation of terrorists states in its abstract:

Drawing from criminology, organizational theory, social psychology, the historical record, and my interviews with military professionals, I assess the potential of an official U.S. program of torture interrogation from a practical perspective. The central element of program design is a sound causal model relating input to output. I explore three principal models of how torture interrogation leads to truth: the animal instinct model, the cognitive failure model, and the data processing model. These models show why torture interrogation fails overall as a counterterrorist tactic.

Anyone remember the Star Trek episode that dealt with this issue? And this was before Waterboarding was part of our lexicon.

Furthermore, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues states:

there is no evidence that torture is an effective means of gathering reliable information. Many survivors of torture report they that would have said anything to “make the torture stop” (Mayer, 2005; McCoy, 2005). Those who make the claim that “torture works” offer as evidence only unverifiable anecdotal accounts.

LiveScience sums it up very well in the title of an article from October 2007:

Torture Has a Long History ... of Not Working

I went through the USAF SERE School, and I can tell you that even though we weren't "tortured" we were placed under numerous stressors, and we would do as many deceitful things to get out of those situations as possible (i.e. tell them what they wanted as opposed to the truth). And we were even taught how to evade the torture by supplying plausible lies, and then "recover" from anything that may have been detrimental to our position as a POW.

EDIT TO ADD: Someone asked if there are any methods for getting information quickly, and reliably. The answer is, "It depends." There are many, many techniques out there (Good Cop-Bad Cop, Surprise, sympathy, etc.). All of those really depend on the state of mind of the subject. One really needs to get to know the subject before you can start to whittle away at them and find what you want/need. And even then, it is wildly variable and depends a great deal on psychology. The link to the Army Field Manual 34-52 mentions some specialized training required:

The interrogator requires specialized training in international regulations, security, and neurolinguistics.

Neurolinguistics is a behavioral communications model and a set of procedures that improve communication skills. The interrogator should read and react to nonverbal communications. An interrogator can best adapt himself to the source's personality and control his own reactions when he has an understanding of basic psychological factors, traits, attitudes, drives, motivations, and inhibitions.

Also, keep in mind that HUMINT can be gathered much more reliably via other methods than direct interrogation. The recent example of the courier that led to the raid on Osama bin Laden was all HUMINT gathered via tailing and observation. DuckMaestro is interested in data, and every source I find says that interrogation isn't even a science, but rather an art... How is one supposed to get data on that? A scholarly paper on Police Interrogation techniques, even highlights the art nature more than anything (PDF File). The most effective that has some backing by studies seems to be the Reid Technique of investigative interviewing, which seems to be a recap from the Army Field Manual.

WHY USE IT? So why do people use it, or promote it? While probably beyond the scope of the answer, I wanted to address this with a couple of thoughts. First of all, human beings are animals. There is a visceral need to hurt your enemy. If you have captured an enemy, it may seem callous to hurt him for the sake of hurting him, so "enhanced interrogation" is a nice rationalization. And as long as you are told to do so by an authority figure, many people will comply (as also highlighted by the original Milgram Experiment). Also, many of the proponents for torture have a vested interest in ensuring that it isn't deemed illegal. They would face prosecution should their actions be deemed illegal! That is self-preservation.

I will add, torture IS effective at intimidation, and keeping people "in line" under an authoritative regime. In that respect, there is a great deal of historical evidence (recent history like Saddam, Pinochet, Iran; or older history like the Inquisitions or Roman methods). In that sense, it is a very effective tool, but generally not for the stated purpose of getting reliable information. But it will get a lot of false confessions that can be used for propaganda and other purposes.

INFORMATION BEYOND JUST INITIAL REFUTATION: I just found a HUGE list of quotes as well. Let me go through them and get a few more for you. This is a long list of policy quotes, and people involved in the intelligence fields, so it really won't have a lot of actual research citations to back it up, since researching torture is highly unethical. Although, I think the Stanford Study may be about as close as you can get. My apologies for some of the references, they aren't always the most impartial, or reliable, so anything below this should probably be taken with a grain of salt. And of course, should you want to read it all, the inescapable conclusion is that torture does not work as a reliable interrogation technique, and never has.

According to the Washington Post, the CIA’s top spy – Michael Sulick, head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service – said that the spy agency has seen no fall-off in intelligence since waterboarding was banned by the Obama administration. “I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint.”

The CIA’s own Inspector General wrote that waterboarding was not “efficacious” in producing information.

A 30-year veteran of CIA’s operations directorate who rose to the most senior managerial ranks (Milton Bearden) says (as quoted by senior CIA agent and Presidential briefer Ray McGovern):

It is irresponsible for any administration not to tell a credible story that would convince critics at home and abroad that this torture has served some useful purpose. This is not just because the old hands overwhelmingly believe that torture doesn’t work — it doesn’t — but also because they know that torture creates more terrorists and fosters more acts of terror than it could possibly neutralize.

A former high-level CIA officer (Philip Giraldi) states:

Many governments that have routinely tortured to obtain information have abandoned the practice when they discovered that other approaches actually worked better for extracting information. Israel prohibited torturing Palestinian terrorist suspects in 1999. Even the German Gestapo stopped torturing French resistance captives when it determined that treating prisoners well actually produced more and better intelligence.

A retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002 (Glenn L. Carle) says:

[Coercive techniques] didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information…Everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

A former top Air Force interrogator who led the team that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has conducted hundreds of interrogations of high ranking Al Qaida members and supervising more than one thousand, and wrote a book called How to Break a Terrorist writes:

As the senior interrogator in Iraq for a task force charged with hunting down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader and mass murderer, I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse. But that’s only the past.

Somewhere in the world there are other young Muslims who have joined Al Qaida because we tortured and abused prisoners. These men will certainly carry out future attacks against Americans, either in Iraq, Afghanistan, or possibly even here. And that’s not to mention numerous other Muslims who support Al Qaida, either financially or in other ways, because they are outraged that the United States tortured and abused Muslim prisoners.

In addition, torture and abuse has made us less safe because detainees are less likely to cooperate during interrogations if they don’t trust us. I know from having conducted hundreds of interrogations of high ranking Al Qaida members and supervising more than one thousand, that when a captured Al Qaida member sees us live up to our stated principles they are more willing to negotiate and cooperate with us. When we torture or abuse them, it hardens their resolve and reaffirms why they picked up arms.

He also says:

[Torture is] extremely ineffective, and it’s counter-productive to what we’re trying to accomplish.

When we torture somebody, it hardens their resolve … The information that you get is unreliable. … And even if you do get reliable information, you’re able to stop a terrorist attack, al Qaeda’s then going to use the fact that we torture people to recruit new members.

And he repeats:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

He said last month:

They don’t want to talk about the long term consequences that cost the lives of Americans…. [The way the U.S. treated its prisoners] was al-Qaeda’s number-one recruiting tool and brought in thousands of foreign fighters who killed American soldiers.

The FBI interrogators who actually interviewed some of the 9/11 suspects say torture didn’t work.

Another FBI interrogator of 9/11 suspects said:

I was in the middle of this, and it’s not true that these [aggressive] techniques were effective.

A third former FBI interrogator — who interrogated Al Qaeda suspects — says categorically that torture does not help collect intelligence. On the other hand he says that torture actually turns people into terrorists.

The FBI warned military interrogators in 2003 that enhanced interrogation techniques are “of questionable effectiveness” and cited a “lack of evidence of [enhanced techniques’] success.

“When long-time FBI director Mueller was asked whether any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through “enhanced techniques”, he responded “I don’t believe that has been the case.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously found that torture doesn’t work, stating:

The administration’s policies concerning [torture] and the resulting controversies damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

The military agency which actually provided advice on harsh interrogation techniques for use against terrorism suspects warned the Pentagon in 2002 that those techniques would produce “unreliable information.”

General Petraeus says that torture is unnecessary, hurts our national security and violates our American values.

Retired 4-star General Barry McCaffrey – who Schwarzkopf called he hero of Desert Storm – agrees.

The number 2 terrorism expert for the State Department says torture doesn’t work, and just creates more terrorists.

Former Navy Judge Advocate General Admiral John Hutson says:

Fundamentally, those kinds of techniques are ineffective. If the goal is to gain actionable intelligence, and it is, and if that’s important, and it is, then we have to use the techniques that are most effective. Torture is the technique of choice of the lazy, stupid and pseudo-tough.

Army Colonel Stuart Herrington – a military intelligence specialist who interrogated generals under the command of Saddam Hussein and evaluated US detention operations at Guantánamo – notes that the process of obtaining information is hampered, not helped, by practices such as “slapping someone in the face and stripping them naked”.

Herrington and other former US military interrogators say:

We know from experience that it is very difficult to elicit information from a detainee who has been abused. The abuse often only strengthens their resolve and makes it that much harder for an interrogator to find a way to elicit useful information.

Major General Thomas Romig, former Army JAG, said:

If you torture somebody, they’ll tell you anything. I don’t know anybody that is good at interrogation, has done it a lot, that will say that that’s an effective means of getting information. … So I don’t think it’s effective.

Brigadier General David R. Irvine, retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School, says torture doesn’t work.

The head of all U.S. intelligence said:

The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world … The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.

Former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke says that America’s indefinite detention without trial and abuse of prisoners is a leading Al Qaeda recruiting tool.

A former U.S. interrogator and counterintelligence agent, and Afghanistan veteran said,

Torture puts our troops in danger, torture makes our troops less safe, torture creates terrorists. It’s used so widely as a propaganda tool now in Afghanistan. All too often, detainees have pamphlets on them, depicting what happened at Guantanamo.

The first head of the Department of Homeland Security – Tom Ridge – says we were wrong to torture.

The former British intelligence chairman says that waterboarding didn’t stop terror plots.

A spokesman for the National Security Council (Tommy Vietor) says:

The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.

The Marines weren’t keen on torture, either.

As Vanity Fair reports:

In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts…Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

An Army psychologist – Major Paul Burney, Army’s Behavior Science Consulting Team psychologist – said (page 78 & 83):

It was stressed to me time and time again that psychological investigations have proven that harsh interrogations do not work. At best it will get you information that a prisoner thinks you want to hear to make the interrogation stop, but that information is strongly likely to be false.

Interrogation techniques that rely on physical or adverse consequences are likely to garner inaccurate information and create an increased level of resistance…There is no evidence that the level of fear or discomfort evoked by a given technique has any consistent correlation to the volume or quality of information obtained.

An expert on resisting torture – Terrence Russell, JPRA’s manager for research and development and a SERE specialist – said (page 209):

History has shown us that physical pressures are not effective for compelling an individual to give information or to do something’ and are not effective for gaining accurate, actionable intelligence.

Okay, I think that's enough for this answer. I'll try to come back to this from time to time to add references and answers to questions. Keep in mind this is a charged subject, but the main science says it isn't reliable. And even if it were reliable, the ethics would cloud the issue beyond this site's charter I think.

share|improve this answer
64  
+1 You convinced me sir. –  Zenon Jun 11 '11 at 19:00
150  
Yeah, I got a little passionate on that answer. As someone who spent his adult life defending the Constitution, I have always felt that as a nation we were better than that, so employing torture is beyond morally wrong, but a detriment to our standing as a free nation. Although, sadly I have found my voice as a minority in many circles I used to be part of. –  Larian LeQuella Jun 11 '11 at 19:09
22  
Bravo. A tour-de-force answer. –  Robusto Jun 11 '11 at 20:51
15  
@Larian - (2) The REAL question is whether there are situation where torture yields results better than lack of it. ALL - 100% - of the reasons listed as "why torture doesn't work" - which pretty much amounts to "interrogated person will lie" - apply 100% equally as well to torture-less interrogation. Except more so - you have less pressure and therefore more likelyhood to come up with coherent lies with no stress. –  DVK Jun 11 '11 at 22:14
18  
@Larian - I would feel significanly more convinced if ANY of your sources were people who would have no political/moral/ethical angle; since the question wasn't "is torture eithical". –  DVK Jun 11 '11 at 22:20

Counter-argument: One of the most successful interrogators of Nazi Germany did not use torture. Quite the opposite really.

Hanns Scharff, "Master Interrogator" of the Luftwaffe.

Scharff was opposed to physically abusing prisoners to obtain information. Learning on the job, Scharff instead relied upon the Luftwaffe's approved list of techniques, which mostly involved making the interrogator seem as if he is his prisoner's greatest advocate while in captivity.

Scharff described various experiences with new POWs, outlining the procedure most of his fellow interrogators were instructed to use. Initially, the POW's fear and sense of disorientation, combined with isolation while not in interrogation, were exploited to gain as much initial biographical information as possible. A prisoner was frequently warned that unless he could produce information beyond name, rank, and serial number, such as the name of his unit and airbase, the Luftwaffe would have no choice but to assume he was a spy and turn him over to the Gestapo for questioning. For Scharff, this technique apparently worked quite well. In addition to initially preying upon his prisoner's fears of the infamous Gestapo, he portrayed himself as their closest ally in their predicament, telling them that while he would like nothing more than to see them safely deposited in a POW camp, his hands were tied unless the prisoner gave him the few details that he requested to help him properly identify the prisoner as a true POW.

After a prisoner's fear had been allayed, Scharff continued to act as a good friend, including sharing jokes, homemade food items, and occasionally alcoholic beverages. Scharff was fluent in English and knowledgeable about British customs and some American ones, which helped him to gain the trust and friendship of many of his prisoners. Some high profile prisoners were treated to outings to German airfields (one POW was even allowed to take a German aircraft for a trial run), tea with German fighter aces, swimming pool excursions, and luncheons, among other things. Prisoners were treated well medically at the nearby Hone Mark Hospital, and some POWs were occasionally allowed to visit their comrades at this hospital for company's sake, as well as the better meals provided there. Scharff was best known for taking his prisoners on strolls through the nearby woods, first having them swear an oath of honor that they would not attempt to escape during their walk. Scharff chose not to use these nature walks as a time to directly ask his prisoners obvious military-related questions, but instead relied on the POWs' desire to speak to anyone outside of isolated captivity about informal, generalized topics. Prisoners often volunteered information the Luftwaffe had instructed Scharff to acquire, frequently without realizing they had done so.

A good detail on the tale and methods used by Hanns Scharff is The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff, by Raymond Toliver.

The book How To Break a Terrorist, by Matthew Alexander also describes how the US switched from harsher methods to more persuasive methods after their attempts to squeeze information through torture had failed.

share|improve this answer
5  
You deserve at least the Necromancer badge for this. +1 –  0xC0000022L Feb 24 '13 at 15:33
1  
Related story, in the other direction: bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20698098 –  Benjol Mar 5 '13 at 9:50
2  
Great example of how it's never too late to add another answer. Sounds like Scharff was the master of good cop, bad cop. –  Nathan Cooper Apr 23 '13 at 17:14
1  
+1 for using a non-US and non-democratic-country source, though I suspect that the threat of torture counts somewhat as using torture. –  Andrew Grimm Mar 8 at 11:15
2  
Note that credible threat of torture (Gestapo) was effective. –  Bulwersator May 26 at 17:20

Like NP problems in computer science, torture could useful only where determining the answer is hard but verifying it is easy.

The somewhat contrived example is that a bomb is known to have been planted in a building downtown, but nobody knows which one. A conspirator being captured, could be compelled to answer, with it quickly known if the information provided was, in fact, accurate.

This is not to say that would justify torture, etc. I'm focused only on the potential utility, as requested by the OP.

Reference: WALZER, M. (1973): “Political action: The problem of dirty hands,” Philosophy & public affairs, 2(2), 160–180

share|improve this answer
3  
@Bill, please provide references for your answers. –  Oddthinking Jun 18 '11 at 10:04
9  
This is a simple mental exercise. –  Bill Jun 20 '11 at 7:28
16  
Yes, true, and it is one that I could counter with 3 other mental exercises reaching the opposite conclusion, which is why we don't use philosophy to solve these issues, but science, which needs empirical evidence, which means references. –  Oddthinking Jun 20 '11 at 8:24
3  
Maybe torturers could use Sodium Pentothal to lowers inhibition, making lying impossible. Maybe intense pain reduces the ability to conceive/maintain meaningful lies. Maybe psychology, MRI machines or more painful medical procedures make lie-detection simple. Maybe torture is normally to persuade rather than reveal (getting off the question). Maybe all issues in practice ARE NP-like problems - otherwise they would simple do an exhaustive search of all buildings - making your suggestion moot. Maybe NONE of them are. –  Oddthinking Jun 23 '11 at 6:09
4  
This is a common technique used unofficially by Brazilian Police. As described in the book [Memórias de um sobrevivente](http://www.companhiadasletras.com.br/detalhe.php?codigo=11387) (Memories by a survivor, by Luiz Alberto Mendes), torture is used to extract verifiable information. The prisoner, knowing that there will be more torture if the information is found to be false, gives up some verifiable truth, while withholding the rest. And this only after enduring as much torture as he could, as he knows that the torturer will only be satisfied with answers that came after torture. –  dmvianna Sep 4 '13 at 3:39

Is torture useful in interrogation? Is it feasible to torture accurate information out of people? Is it feasible to determine whether the information is likely accurate without outside confirmation?

If torture is used then it is sometimes useful. Information obtained from torture may or may not be accurate, and requires outside confirmation.

Can interrogators determine whether information is accurate?

There are two problems:

  1. The subject may not know the truth
  2. The subject may not tell the truth

Within INTELLIGENCE SCIENCE BOARD, EDUCING INFORMATION: INTERROGATION, SCI­ENCE AND ART National Defense Intelligence College Press (2006):

  • Chapter 3 discusses whether human interrogators can tell whether they are being deceived; and concludes, "not reliably".

We do not really know what we think we know. Overall, knowledge of behavioral indicators that might assist in the detection of deception is very limited and provides little reliable information that could assist intelligence collectors operating anywhere outside the United States or Europe. Despite some progress in the ability to assess common criminals, results gleaned from the domestic population of criminals and college undergraduates may help us little in dealing with uncooperative detained soldiers or committed and possibly resistance-trained followers of radical movements.

Very little is actually known about current populations of interest. In addition, this review failed to locate a single study examining the impact on deception detection of using interpreters/translators in questioning subjects. There is little reason to assume that data generalize across cultures, particularly Third World populations.

The "outside the United States or Europe" is a reference to earlier in the chapter where it talks about language barriers (the interrogator not being fluent in the subject's language) and cultural barriers (the interrogator not being fluent in the subject's culture, religion, etc.).

The chapter includes many statements such as,

People who adopt the belief that there are reliable cues to deception are frequently incorrect. Significant research has studied people’s beliefs about indicators that someone is being deceptive and their own attitudes and confidence about their personal ability to be deceptive. A summary of 57 studies examining beliefs about nonverbal cues to deception indicated that many people do not actually know what they think they know: in other words, their beliefs are just as often wrong as they are right.36 These patterns of erroneous beliefs are widespread and are found equally among professional interrogators/investigators and novices.7

  • Chapter 4 discusses whether there are mechanical aids to detect deception. It discusses many, including polygraphs, sodium pentothal, MRIs and PET scans, etc. It concludes,

Thus, despite the polygraph’s shortcomings, there is currently no viable technical alternative to polygraphy. After reviewing the EEG and fMRI deception detection efforts, as well as some other psychophysiological candidate techniques (e.g., VSA), the National Research Council concluded that “some of the potential alternatives show promise, but none has yet been shown to outperform the polygraph

The polygraph isn't wholly reliable. Earlier in the chapter, it says,

The accuracy of the polygraph is a matter of controversy. Some researchers believe that the current system with the CQT is no better than chance (c.f. BenShakhar, 1991; Furedy, 1996; Saxe, 1991). Other researchers estimate the accuracy at 75% to 80% (i.e., one error, on average, in four to fi ve trials): Elaad and others (1992) with the GKT/CIT, MacLaren (2001) with the GKT/CIT, and Patrick and Iacono (1991) with the CQT. Supreme Court Justice John P. Stevens found “a host of studies that place the reliability of polygraph tests at 85 to 90 percent” (United States v. Scheffer, 523 U.S. 303, 333, quoted in Greeley, 2004, p. 129).

Is there scientific evidence that torture works?

Chapter 10 of Ibid states that there hasn't [yet] been [published] scientific investigation:

Eduction practices are methods, techniques, procedures, strategies, etc., employed as part of interviews and interrogations to draw out information from subjects, some of whom may initially be unwilling to provide information. Obviously educed information can provide an important source of HUMINT. Surprisingly, the last forty years have seen almost no scientific research examining eduction practices. Rather, our current knowledge is based on feedback and lessons learned from field experience. The “interrogation approaches” taught in standard interrogation training (e.g., Army Field Manual 34-52) have remained largely unchanged since World War II.

This paper argues two points: first, that scientific investigation of eduction practices is needed to supplement lessons learned from field experience, and second, that various research venues are available to examine these practices. Research approaches could include both retrospective analyses of data about past interrogations (including those that used harsh methods) and new studies that relate different eduction practices to the value of information obtained.

It suggests that such research could be (but hasn't been) made, using as datum the records of past interrogations (including e.g. interrogations of American POWs).

Is torture sometimes useful?

Anecdotal evidence suggests "yes":

  • When the goal is short-term
  • When the information can be verified externally

For example, EVIDENCE GAINED FROM TORTURE: WISHFUL THINKING, CHECKABILITY, AND EXTREME CIRCUMSTANCES cites the following story,

Another case, not exactly of torture, but of truth confessed under extreme duress (hence logically very similar), is from opera­ tions against the Tamil Tigers. It involved a literal ticking bomb scenario: a security forces unit apprehended three terrorists who it suspected of planting a bomb somewhere in a city. They were brought before the officer in charge:

He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists-highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation-remained silent. [He] asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So [he] took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved.16

It mentions a case where torture has been effective in American civilian police-work,

Torture is not restricted to operations against terrorists; it is also resorted to in more mundane police work. In Leon v. Wain­ wright, the Eleventh Circuit considered a case where the police ap­ prehended one of two kidnappers of a taxi driver while the kidnapper was collecting ransom. The court found that when [the kidnapper] refused to tell them [the police] the location, he was set upon by several of the officers. .. [T]hey threatened and physi­ cally abused him by twisting his arm and choking him until he re­ vealed where [the taxi driver] was being held.21 The court held these actions to be reasonable given the "immediate necessity" to save the driver's life. The important point is that the information confessed turned out to be true.22

It also mentions a case where information obtained was unreliable or misleading,

It is possible to find, on the other hand, cases in which infor­mation gained under torture by experienced interrogators turned out to be false. A case that proved significant for the intelligence failures in the lead-up to the Iraq War is that of Ibn al-Shaykh al­ Libi, a Libyan al-Qaeda operative captured while fleeing Afghani­stan around the end of 2001. Al-Libi later claimed that, under tor­ture, he fabricated evidence that Iraq had provided chemical and biological warfare training to al-Qaeda. This evidence appears to have been a main source of false claims by President Bush that there were links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Based on the incom­plete evidence available, it appears that al-Libi did fabricate such evidence under torture or the threat of torture. However, it is un­clear whether he did so to avoid torture, as in the classic scenario of a tortured interrogee telling the interrogator anything he wants to hear, or whether he did so deliberately to encourage the United States to invade Iraq and thus radicalize the Arab world.23 Despite the fragmentary nature of these cases, they suggest, when taken as a whole, that the reliability of evidence gained from torture should not be dismissed on the basis that an interrogee will confess to anything.

share|improve this answer

protected by Larian LeQuella Jun 12 '11 at 21:55

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.