I’m going to reserve comments on the topic of torture, as my thoughts may well skew the discussion, and I would prefer that readers focus on M. Gregg Bloche’s rather brave article but in the meantime a definition of waterboarding is warranted:
Waterboarding is a form of torture in which water is poured over the face of an immobilized captive, causing the individual to experience the sensation of drowning.
Although a variety of specific techniques are used in waterboarding, the captive’s face is usually covered with cloth or some other thin material, and the subject is immobilized on his/her back. Water is then poured onto the face over the breathing passages, causing an almost immediate gag reflex and creating the sensation that the captive is drowning.
Waterboarding can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage and, if uninterrupted, death. Adverse physical consequences can manifest themselves months after the event, while psychological effects can last for years. The term water board torture appears in press reports as early as 1976.
Now Mr. Bloche’s courageous article:
Torture, liberals like me often insist, isn’t just immoral, it’sineffective. We like this proposition because it portrays us asprotectors of the nation, not wusses willing to risk American lives toprotect terrorists. And we love to quote seasoned interrogators’assurances that building rapport with the bad guys will get them totalk.
But the killing of Osama bin Laden four weeks ago has revived the old debate about whether torture works.Could it be that “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed during theGeorge W. Bush administration helped find bin Laden’s now-famous courier and track him to the terrorist in chief’s now-infamous lair?
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and current administration officials say no. Former attorney general Michael Mukasey and former vice president Dick Cheney say yes.
Theidea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective ingetting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me.It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t workbecause people being abused to the breaking point will say anything toget the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want tohear.
But this position is at odds with some behavioral science,I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors whobuilt on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests howabuse can indeed work.
I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program andwho haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possibleto piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.
Thismodel holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terroriststo tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance.Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’swhat sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation weredesigned to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequentinsults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, suchas “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.
Oncea sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogatorscan shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprievesfrom foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax brokenmen to comply with their abusers’ expectations.
Certainly,interrogators using this approach have obtained false confessions.Chinese interrogators did so intentionally, for propaganda purposes,with American prisoners during the Korean War. McCain and other criticsof “torture-lite” cite this precedent to argue that it can’t yieldreliable information. But the same psychological sequence — induction ofhopelessness, followed by rewards to shape compliance — can be used toget terrorism suspects to tell the truth, or so the architects ofenhanced interrogation hypothesize.
Critical to this model is theability to assess suspects’ truthfulness in real time. To this end, CIAinterrogators stressed speedy integration of intelligence from allsources. The idea was to frame questions to detect falsehoods;interrogators could then reward honesty and punish deceit.
Scientific study of this question would require random sorting ofsuspects into groups that receive either torture-lite or conventionalforms of interrogation. To frame this inquiry is to show why it can’t becarried out: It would violate international law and research ethics.The CIA, Hubbard told me, conducted no such study for this reason.
Sowe’re left with the unsavory possibility that torture-lite works — andthat it may have helped find bin Laden. It does no good to point out, assome human rights advocates have, that the detainees who yieldedinformation about his courier did so after the abuse stopped. The modelon which enhanced interrogation is based can account for this. Thedetainees’ cooperation could have ensued from hopelessness and despair,followed by interrogators’ adroit use of their power to punish andreward.
This possibility poses the question of torture in a moreunsettling fashion, by denying us the easy out that torture is bothineffective and wrong. We must choose between its repugnance to ourvalues and its potential efficacy. To me, the choice is almost alwaysobvious: Contempt for the law of nations would put us on a path toward amore brutish world. Conservatives are fond of saying, on behalf ofmartial sacrifice, that freedom isn’t free. Neither is basic decency.
I would like to thank Mr. Bloche and the Washington Post. This article has been edited for brevity. The full text of this analysis of torture can be found here.