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The Painful Subject of… Interrogative Torture

Posted by softestpawn on July 20, 2010

Some time ago, following memos and documents released from the interrogations at Guatamalo and others, some writers argued that torture doesn’t work:

and a raft of others.

In this article, long awaited by both readers of this blog, I’m going to ask in a rather Delve-special way:

  1. Does torture work?
  2. Why, then, do some people claim that it does not?
  3. What do these claims and  the way they are supported tell us about the way ‘evidence-based policy’ should be examined and tested?

For the purposes of this article, torture is direct physical pain or maiming. Whereas this, including invasion of personal space, isolation and sleep deprivation and this use of psychologists are not. They are certainly unpleasant, but not in the same league as having – or threatening to have – your fingernails torn out. If they are ineffective it might simply be that they are not gruesome enough.

Also, I’m only looking at how it ‘works’ as a direct interrogation technique, rather than whether it ‘works’ as a suitably effective social tool.

While I go over the collected evidence, consider these two situations:

  1. A bloke knocks on your door and tries to persuade you to give him your car keys.
  2. A bloke breaks in through the door, pokes out one of your eyeballs and threatens to tear various new holes through your particularly painfuls until you tell him where your car keys are.

Where Torture Works

There is, I think, no need to give examples of victims under torture confessing to all kinds of things that they may or may not have done. Even the articles above recognise that ‘with torture you can make people say anything’. While this is rightly considered somewhat beside the point, if torture can force people to ‘confess’ to shameful things that would be against their principles, it should not be surprising that it might force people to confess what they know.

All the same, let’s have some evidence.

For fairly obvious ethical reasons there is little in the way of modern reliable random controlled trials on the efficacy of torture. Similarly, many regimes with widespread routine torture are thankfully gone and their records not generally available.

Lack of reliable monitored evidence however is not evidence of lack of effectiveness.  We can start by looking at historical accounts.

There is indirect evidence in the precautions taken by WW2 spies who were routinely going into environments where interrogative torture was likely. Organisation cells were created to prevent single points of failure, and key locations hidden from the staff.  This tells us that people who worked in these environments expected torture to give away information. It can be argued from the safety of this armchair that this is only circumstantial evidence – perhaps that fear was unfounded – and so should be discarded.

When it comes to more direct examples, despite the courage required to resist such terrible action, a stigma is attached to ‘breaking’ under torture.  More frequent – more newsworthy, more heroic – are accounts of resisting.

So where accounts give examples of victims revealing information, they are usually not named.  Some do and are controversial, for example Rene Hardy is said to have betrayed Jean Moulin among others.

Some less so include this obituary of Louis Handschuh, where an escapee is captured and tortured and gives up the names of thirteen others. And in this obituary of Andrée Peel, she was “betrayed by a fellow agent who had been arrested by the Gestapo and threatened with the torture of his family”

Accounts of Miguel Enriquez’s discovery and death in Cuba commonly give it due to MIR members talking under torture (and here)

Zoya Kosmodemjanskaja is betrayed by a captured colleague

Von Ruffin is named by another gay man who was tortured.

Succumbing to torture, someone named the entire Daman family

Henry Ballard betrays under torture the other members of the conspiracy to place Mary on the English throne

Turning to more ancient examples, the conquistador Pizarro tortured Incas to locate their king Atahualpa

Sinan Pasha captured and tortured – by impaling – Prince Jem’s couriers to force them to reveal their messages, as described by Freeman in “Jem Sultan“.

Rather famously for UK readers, Guy Fawkes was tortured over several days to extract the names of his co-conspirators, leaving him barely able to sign his confessions.

And so on.

None of the above however are primary (first-hand) accounts, and apart from Pizarro’s are poorly verified.  More careful work has been done by Darius Rejali and describes situations where it most definitely worked. Maybe not efficiently, but it’s not easy to directly compare that efficiency with that of any other method (more later).

In practice, however, we can see evidence all around us of how pain – or the threat of pain – causes us to do, say or give things we would rather not. We even have a name for it:

Robbery: Theft with Violence

Not all the violence in robbery is to cause compliance under duress. Sometimes it is to disable the victim. Sometimes to temporarily prevent the victim from interfering – a shove out of the way, a push to the floor. Sometimes it is for the fun of it.

But there are hundreds of thousands of robberies a year in the UK, and plenty of examples where pain or death – or the threat of it – resulted in compliance:

…also held up a newsagent at knifepoint and stole £150 earlier in the month…

…if you shout any more I will break your neck…

…assaulted her while demanding money. He then fled with a three-figure some of money…

…The men armed with weapons dragged Mr Bowers-Lovett from his bed and demanded he opened a safe. They continued to assault him and his wife before they escaped with a substantial amount of cash…

…two males rushed towards him from behind before threatening him and demanding he hand over his possessions. He handed over his wallet and mobile phone…

…Two men forced their way into the premises and threatened an 64 year old man with a knife before demanding that he handed over his money. The suspects then fled the scene with a sum of cash…

…he was confronted by a male carrying a knife, who demanded he hand over his money and mobile phone.  The 27-year-old complied…

…five masked men kicked down the front door of his house on Kingscroft Close, Streetly. They beat the victim, demanding the keys to his [car]… Also in the house were the man’s wife and two children…

…two men appeared behind her and pushed her inside, demanding that she open the safe. The men then escaped with a substantial amount of cash…

…Two men approached a 28-year-old man and threatened him with a knife, demanding the keys to the car. They punched him two or three times before driving off in it…

…assaulted him and his 21-year-old house mate. The housemate was then taken to a nearby cash point … by one of the robbers, while the other man was kept at home by the other robber. Both men left the address when they had returned from the cash point…

And that’s just a tiny sample of the terrifying ordeals where the victim complies under duress. Few approach the even more daunting prospect of facing deliberate torture for days, months or years on end.

The occasions when the robbery is resisted are more public, more newsworthy, more rare. While we can call these people heroes (or stubborn, perhaps) that is not a reason to call those who folded cowards. It is normal to succumb.


There are also of course lots of examples of victims resisting and saying nothing, or giving false information.  This appears to be the main argument in the articles linked to at the beginning: a rather extreme ‘test case’ (getting the location of a bomb from a terrorist) is proposed and then used as a representative example. And since the victim may lie, you can’t trust torture, and therefore torture does not work.

And there is some watery reasoning that torture, because it makes victims more suggestable and confused, also makes their testimony less reliable, and again, since it is not completely trustable, therefore it is useless.

Indeed, if you put someone on the rack in order to find the location of the bomb, and you hurt him until he tells you stuff, you can’t tell if what he’s told you is true. But then, anyone under any kind of interrogation may be lying to you, or confused, or suggestable. We might as well not bother asking anyone anything. All the same, torture may be about as reliable as any other interrogation but with more shouting, moral turpitude and cleaning up.

And so we hit the nub problem of any interrogation: how does a competent interrogator ensure that what he gets is good, useful information and not just what he wants to hear, or even biased by his own preferences?

It’s a good question. A difficult question. And if you don’t work out an answer soon, we’ll send someone around to beat one out of you.

Improving Reliability

Generally speaking, you check what has been said against what has or can be verified, against previous testimony, or other testimony. Once you’ve got those loops in place, it can be much easier to ‘encourage’ the victim to be truthful. It’s where the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario above falls down – it assumes that if you can’t verify information given, then torture might not work (as indeed any other interrogation might fail) and therefore torture doesn’t work at all.

It seems generally accepted that, when broken, “people will say anything to make the pain stop”, which is of course exactly the idea. They may make stuff up, but a competent interrogator does not take what is said at face value.

If you’re in the business of gathering contacts for example, false information leads to to dead ends. Useful information can lead to more evidence. And if your victim is still in the loop – if you come back to them having checked their information – then this can be used to ‘encourage’ better performance.

And if they know you will hurt them if they get anything wrong once it’s been verified, there’s a very good incentive to tell the Truth in the first place.  An incentive that isn’t there if you’re just chatting over tea and biscuits.

Evidence Based Policy

Evidence based policy is the new religion amongst some people, including myself and at least two of the bloggers linked to at the start. But to use it we need to  understand what it actually means.  Ben Goldacre, for example, is  a great public advocate of it but even he confuses written reports with ‘sound scientific evidence’.

We need to consider what evidence is valid, how much is sufficient, we need to have systems to include new evidence to adjust and perhaps reverse policy, methods to cope with uncertainty and incompleteness and poor quality, and mitigatations for  biases in its collection and summary.  And we need to remember that sometimes it is irrelevant.

It is difficult to ‘prove a negative’ (such as proving that aliens do not live in clouds, or that torture does not work), and when assembling circumstantial evidence to try and do so, it is vital to consider contradictory evidence and remove duplications under different disguises before drawing conclusions from it. Particuarly, it’s important to remember that just because something sometimes doesn’t work, this is no reason to reject that it does work sometimes, or even usually. “Smoking kills”, for example.

The supporting evidence given by the writers above are examples of collection bias, of morally-driven analysis:  the evidence collection (in this case, largely the blindness to widespread contradictory evidence) is shaped by the wishes of the collector.

Perhaps this bias is because it is a morally fraught subject. Dearly held fundamental principles tend to contradict each other when trying to weigh up the pros and cons of whether, or under what conditions, we as a society should tolerate torture. Some of them do not even compare well: the principles of acting vs not acting, of saving lives vs not being ‘dirtied’. Pretty much any conclusion is imperfect, and would result in pain and loss for some people somewhere.

Wouldn’t it be easy to just bypass these quite horrible comparisons? And gosh, here’s an opportunity. After all, if torture doesn’t work, then there’s no need to have to do all that difficult introspection.

By ‘removing’ the utility argument, we remove the need for any difficult moral argument.

The difficulty of the moral question encourages the selection, ignoring, twisting and shaping of evidence to fit the desired policy rather than the other way around. The intent, possibly, is to show that torture does not work, whether or not you think it’s moral, so therefore there’s no practical reason to use it. Rather than that torture is morally indefensible, whether or not it works.

So Torture Works?

Of course it does. Would you not have given up your car keys? Of course you would. Life and health is more important than a car. But would you have given up your children?  That’s a very different motivation.

So torture works sometimes, in the same way that “Smoking kills (sometimes)”. The reverse is not true: “Smoking does not kill” is a difficult claim to support.

And there are (sometimes) more effective methods available. Ordinary persuasion, perhaps via the introduction of alternative views from respectable leader figures, appears to (sometimes) offer good results. Someone who is converted will (sometimes) offer far better cooperation, but, of course, it’s only sometimes possible to convert dedicated foes.

Far more important is that we recognise torture’s every-day efficacy when we take a moral stand against it. Taking defenceless human beings and deliberately inflicting pain on them is a horrific thing to do. Robbery works, and it can tell us that torture works, but it’s not a reason to condone either.

The Moral Argument

Even putting aside the evidence list above, it is simply not good enough to claim that we shouldn’t torture because we have no evidence that it works. It remains a moral argument as follows:

(1) If someone produces evidence that certain methods of torture do work, this is not a reason to take it up as a tool of the community. The reasons not to torture are independent of whether we have thorough proof of its efficacy right now.

(2) There’s a huge number of people who have encountered torture, and as the world population connects up they become closer to us. To claim, loudly and widely in papers and blogs, that ‘we’ believe torture doesn’t work divides the comfortable armchair writers from the people who have ‘been there’. In particular, it shames those who have broken under it, who in my armchair view have no reason to be ashamed . Imagine, if you will, someone who has been through days, weeks, months of such hell and given away names of friends and family and colleagues, and telling them: “Torture doesn’t work”

(3) Most importantly, this blind-eye attitude cheats our ability to think through our ethics, and our ability to take a proper moral stance:

I oppose torture not because some dodgy armchair reasoning tells us it might not work sometimes.

I oppose it because my armchair principles call it vile.


7 Responses to “The Painful Subject of… Interrogative Torture”

  1. Stewart said

    Yes. ‘Of course’ it works. It is repulsive, but that won’t stop individuals and groups/organisations using the most effective means available to them to find things out.

  2. ivan viehoff said

    Torture works in the sense that if you take a lot of people and torture them you will get some useful information out of some of them.

    Torture doesn’t work in the sense that you inevitably tortured some people who didn’t give you any useful information, and many of those probably never had anything to give to you. If any case of torturing someone who had nothing useful to tell you is unacceptable, and to me it is unacceptable, then in that sense torture doesn’t work. As you say, torturing someone for unverifiable information is pointless, and often the correct but unverifiable information is “I don’t know”.

    This is the sense in which it is 100% correct to say that torture does not work. With any individual person, it is usually impossible to tell in advance if they have any verifiable information to give you, so in that individual case the torture will not work.

    Then there is the reality of how it is applied in practice in many places. The reality is that torturers frequently ask for unverifiable information (“please confess to this crime”) and ask information of people who have none to give (“who did this” – true answer “I don’t know”) who will tell lies to stop the torture, lies which the torturer will then “verify” by torturing someone else to confess to it, thus obtaining a false confirmation bias to the effectiveness of torture.

    “Evidence” for court trial obtained by torture is certainly useless unless you have very strong independent verification. In particular, confessions without strong independent verification extracted under torture are completely useless.

    The US legal system includes a kind of torture called the “plea bargain”. Although no physical violence is used, the threat of massive legal costs in a contested trial, and a much longer sentence if you nevertheless lose, is strong enough to make many innocent people plead guilty. I believe something similar happens in Japan, as was recently exposed when two people pleaded guilty independently to the same crime.

    • Ivan I’d like to see some support for your claims about what you think happens ‘in reality’.

      • ivan viehoff said

        If you don’t believe that torture has routinely been used to extract confessions by security forces throughout history, and continues routinely to be used for that purpose in less civilised places, then I would say you are extremely credulous. See for example Wikipedia article on torture “Medieval and early modern European courts used torture … Torture was deemed a legitimate means to extract confessions…” References provided there. At the end of the day, police find duress is a short cut to getting the “evidence” they need for a case, avoids the need for painstaking and hugely labour intensive investigation, and so some of them are bound to use it if they can get away with it.

        If you want evidence of it being done in recent times, even in relatively civilised places, then there are plenty of cases over the last 40 years or so under English jurisprudence of convictions being found unsafe on appeal due to confession extracted under duress, despite the safeguards against it here. Most famously the Birmingham Six case.

        I have little doubt that people are still tortured to extract confessions in places like Saudi Arabia. I would point in particular to the time when the authorities there found it inconvenient to admit the bombings were by islamic terrorists, so instead they framed European expatriates allegedly engaged in a turf war over the illicit alcohol trade. In particular there was a disgraceful case where they picked up a British doctor who had come out to treat the bomb victims in the street, and tortured him until he confessed to having laid the bomb for that reason. Of course, it is completely denied: we only have as evidence his testimony, his injuries, the utter implausibility of the confession, the fact that accused people in Saudi are routinely held incommunicado in undisclosed locations for extended periods, and the subsequent knowledge that this was part of a sequence of bombings that the Saudis now acknowledge is Islamic terrorism. If the Saudis really want to deny that torture takes place, they would ensure that suspects are not held incommunicado, and all interviewing would take place videoed and in the presence of the accused’s lawyer, as happens in places which really want to make sure their police do not take this short cut. And surely this is just one of many countries where it is found politically convenient to extract confessions under duress, or the police wnat a short cut to a case they can put to court.

        Read about criminal cases in Saudi in general, and you will find that it is normal (95%+) for there to be a confession. Since confessions would not be remotely so common without duress, as confessions are not obtained so often in countries that have made strong efforts to stamp out duress, Occam’s razor leads us to conclude that duress is common as a method to obtain confessions there. If you research criminal cases in Japan, you will discover that judges there are accustomed to having a confession from the accused (95%+ again). Same argument applies. Etc, etc.

    • We may be at cross purposes. I’ve given plenty of examples of where torture has been used. I’m after some support for your rather specific assumptions about interrogative incompetence, that you then appear to use to argue that it’s pointless. Or have I missed your point? 

      No doubt many torturers are incompetent at extracting useful information, or do not have that as a purpose, but that’s a staff training issue or organisation/aim issue that applies to any interrogation method, not an efficacy of torture issue.

      For a close analogy, showing that robbery doesn’t work sometimes or even often, or declaiming armchair assumptions that for example ‘in reality, robbers don’t know if you actually have a mobile phone’, doesn’t mean you can say “Robbery doesn’t work”. It plainly does.

  3. rockdoctor said

    I like to imagine what would happen if an innocwent person, such as myself, was picked up by the authorities, who have convinced themselves that I am guilty of some serious crime and that I have some crucial piece of information.
    They will ignore all my protestations of innocence and torture me. I will be unable (due to innocence) to give them the information they require so they will torture me more.
    The innocent person is likely to be tortured more than the guilty, possibly as far as death, because of their innocence.
    I think that is a good reason to forbid torture.

    • Yes, I think there’s a whole other set of subjects on the wider consequences of using torture as a tool of the state, not least the effects on ‘innocent’ victims and their close social groups, and the effects that has in turn on the security of the society and the state.

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