- CRITTER TALK
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’s ineffective. We like this proposition because it portrays us as protectors of the nation, not wusses willing to risk American lives to protect terrorists. And we love to quote seasoned interrogators’ assurances that building rapport with the bad guys will get them to talk.
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 the George 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.
The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.
But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse 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 and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.
This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.
Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men 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 critics of “torture-lite” cite this precedent to argue that it can’t yield reliable information. But the same psychological sequence — induction of hopelessness, followed by rewards to shape compliance — can be used to get terrorism suspects to tell the truth, or so the architects of enhanced interrogation hypothesize.
Critical to this model is the ability to assess suspects’ truthfulness in real time. To this end, CIA interrogators stressed speedy integration of intelligence from all sources. 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 of suspects into groups that receive either torture-lite or conventional forms of interrogation. To frame this inquiry is to show why it can’t be carried out: It would violate international law and research ethics. The CIA, Hubbard told me, conducted no such study for this reason.
So we’re left with the unsavory possibility that torture-lite works — and that it may have helped find bin Laden. It does no good to point out, as some human rights advocates have, that the detainees who yielded information about his courier did so after the abuse stopped. The model on which enhanced interrogation is based can account for this. The detainees’ cooperation could have ensued from hopelessness and despair, followed by interrogators’ adroit use of their power to punish and reward.
This possibility poses the question of torture in a more unsettling fashion, by denying us the easy out that torture is both ineffective and wrong. We must choose between its repugnance to our values and its potential efficacy. To me, the choice is almost always obvious: Contempt for the law of nations would put us on a path toward a more brutish world. Conservatives are fond of saying, on behalf of martial 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.