The Torture Report, Part 2: Is Torture A Necessary Evil? (Opinion Piece)

In 1989, the CIA told Congress that,

“…inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.”


Less than 15 years later, the CIA was torturing detainees in secret prisons around the world in an attempt to gather intel following the attacks of 9/11.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on this “enhanced interrogation” program, released this past Tuesday, appears to have confirmed what the CIA itself told Congress about the ineffectiveness of torture back in ’89: the seven-year program failed to produce a single piece of key intel that wasn’t already available before interrogations.

Words from History: “It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”    –Napoleon Bonaparte, Letter to Louis Alexandre Berthier (November 11, 1798)

Reactions to the report have been mixed. Most Americans are disturbed by the details of the report, but many also believe that the use of these techniques is simply the harsh reality of maintaing national security in the modern world.

Commenting on the report following its release Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that he didn’t believe that, “…any other nation would go to the lengths the United States does to bare its soul, admit mistakes when they are made and learn from those mistakes.”

But the question we must ask ourselves is this: what is the point of the torture? The answer: to gather intelligence. And by all indications, torture failed to accomplish this goal once again.

Even CIA agents who took part in the program called its merits into question. According to the Senate report,

“C.I.A. officers regularly called into question whether the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation techniques were effective, assessing that the use of the techniques failed to elicit detainee cooperation or produce accurate intelligence.”


This military base in Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, was said to be used by the CIA to detain and question terrorism suspects. (Photo Credit: Tomasz Waszcuk/European Pressphoto Agency)

This military base in Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, was said to be used by the CIA to detain and question terrorism suspects. (Photo Credit: Tomasz Waszcuk/European Pressphoto Agency)

Remember, the CIA itself admitted that torture doesn’t work in 1989 – so it defies explanation that when it came time for the agency to decide who would run their post-9/11 interrogation program, they picked individuals with questionable pasts related to torture.

The head interrogator (who isn’t named in the report) had previously been in charge of an extremely controversial torture program in Latin America during the 1980s.

He was put in charge of the new interrogation program in the fall of 2002, despite calls from the CIA’s inspector general that he be, “orally admonished for inappropriate use of interrogation techniques” for his involvement in the Latin American torture camps.

The other chief consultants were Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, who were identified by the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar in the report.

The two psychologists had helped run a Cold War-era program called SERE that prepared Air Force pilots for the torture they might face if captured by Communist forces, but had never actually conducted a real interrogation themselves.

According to The New York Times,

“The program — called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape — had never been intended for use in American interrogations, and involved methods that had produced false confessions when used on American airmen held by the Chinese in the Korean War.”


Sept. 16, 2012: Airman 1st Class Jonathan Roberts plays the role of a captor guarding captured members of the 133rd Airlift Wing during survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training at the Army Training Site in Arden Hills, Minnesota (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

Sept. 16, 2012: Airman 1st Class Jonathan Roberts plays the role of a captor guarding captured members of the 133rd Airlift Wing during survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training at the Army Training Site in Arden Hills, Minnesota (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

But despite their dubious credentials, the CIA selected the two psychologists to head up the new interrogation program, and even allowed them to assess their own work.

Not surprisingly, the pair gave themselves excellent grades, while charging a daily fee of $1,800 a piece to waterboard detainees – four times more than other interrogators were paid.

The psychologists eventually started a company that took over the interrogation program from 2005 until it was shut down in 2009. In total, the CIA paid the company $81 million for its services. It cost the agency another $1 million to protect the company from legal liability.

The psychologists’ brutal interrogation methods were based on a scientific concept called “learned helplessness”. The basic premise is that once a detainee has been tortured for long enough, they come to a realization that they have absolutely no control over their situation, causing them to give up completely on any further resistance.

learned helplessness

The steps of learned helplessness

This ultimate point of helplessness is what the CIA calls a “debility-dependency-dread” state in a prisoner – it’s at this “desired point of helplessness” that detainees are supposedly much more susceptible to interrogation.

The only problem: real science simply does not support these assumptions.

Dr. Charles A. Morgan III is a psychiatrist from the University of New Haven who actually met Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen while studying the effects of stress on troops. He says,

“My impression is that they misread the theory. They’re not really scientists.”


Dr. Morgan recently completed a study in which he examined levels of compliance and suggestibility for troops who had just undergone SERE training, which includes what Morgan calls a “mini-exposure” to many of the same interrogation tactics used by the CIA.

The results: while a portion of the troops did become more compliant, the vast majority also became much more suggestible when presented with misinformation.

“Essentially you’re making people less reliable and more stupid. You can see the problem,”

Morgan says.

The fundamental flaw with torture is that stress, especially prolonged stress, can seriously warp a person’s thinking, as well as their memory.

Steven Kleinman is a career intelligence officer and former interrogator. He served as the senior adviser on interrogation to the Special Operations Task Force in Baghdad, Iraq during the Iraq war.

Steven Kleinman (Courtesy of Human Rights First)

Steven Kleinman (Courtesy of Human Rights First)

In 2003, Kleinman testified before Congress to denounce torture methods like forced nudity, sleep deprivation, and painful shackling, which were being used on Iraqi detainees.

Kleinman ordered a stop to the enhanced interrogations as soon as he discovered the brutal methods being used, and later described these tactics as “outmoded, amateurish, and unreliable”.

Speaking with John Donvan on NPR’s On Point radio show yesterday, Kleinman said the following:

“A sophisticated understanding of how you illicit information, from even the most resistant sources, will demonstrate over and over that, first of all, there’s no expedient route. It’s a slow, methodical, thoughtful, behavioral science-driven process. So there’s no silver bullets…

“Everyone who’s involved in interrogation should be clear on one thing: the information we’re after is stored in the memory, and memory is a psycho-physical process that has to be respected. Waterboarding, extensive sleep deprivation- all of these pressures will undermine the ability of an individual to recall accurately, even if they were so inclined to answer questions…

“Memory is not recall – cognitive psychologists will tell you it’s reconstruction. So we have to be very very careful, by the way we question people.”


I’m young and surely naive and idealistic, so I want to be careful here. I’m not saying that torture has never been successful at extracting useful intelligence that saves lives, but it definitely has a pretty bad track record- especially in the last few decades.

And in recent years, it has become much much harder for even the most powerful governments to hide their secrets forever, as evidenced by the Wikileaks cables published in 2010 and the Edward Snowden revelations last summer.

This torture report will undoubtedly be used as a potent recruiting propaganda for groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and adds legitimacy to all the other anti-American sentiment out there today.

The report revealed that many of the facilities used by the CIA for its interrogations were located in countries like Syria and Libya – countries that the U.S. has publicly criticized recently for human rights violations. This undeniable hypocrisy makes it hard for the U.S. to claim the moral high ground when it becomes involved in foreign conflicts.

The integral question is this. What’s greater: the impact of the (negligible) intel we got from those seven years of torture? Or the impact of the increased anti-Americanism worldwide that will surely result from these revelations? You’d be hard-pressed arguing against the latter.

At the end of the day, if the United States truly wants to be a global force for good, it has to lead by example.

If we want to reduce the anti-Americanism that pushes young people towards groups like ISIS, we should seriously consider drastically changing our approach to torture, basing it more off of the science of cognitive psychology and our current understanding of how memory works.

We can still hold the most dangerous terrorism suspects in isolated, high-security facilities and attempt to extract intel from them. But we should do it in a way that focuses on breaking through the brainwashing that led that individual to pursue terrorism in the first place.

I’m no expert, so it’s quite possible that this more scientific method might not produce all that much intel. But hey- neither has torture, apparently, so what do we have to lose?

If you’re interested in reading more about the background of the torture program, check out this excellent article from The New York Times.


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