Does torture work? The case of the United States

Following, Donald Trump’s victory against Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential Election, anti-torture campaigners have been concerned that the US may resume its use of torture. During the campaign, Trump asserted that “Torture works. OK, folks?”. More recently Trump appears to have had a road-to-Damascus-style conversion. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump revealed that General James Mattis, possibly his future Secretary of Defense, had convinced him that torture does not work. But the question remains, is torture an effective means of intelligence gathering?

It is now widely accepted that torture was used by George W. Bush’s administration during the ‘War on Terror’. That period therefore offers a useful recent case study of whether torture is an effective means of interrogation. In 2014, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee published a report which catalogued the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The report took six years to compile and cost around $50 million. The committee was allowed unprecedented access to around six million pages of internal CIA documents. The report - which is still heavily redacted - concluded that the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" was not effective. It produced no actionable intelligence that hadn't already been collected with methods that did not involve torture.  

However, the report’s findings remain disputed. Several Republican members of the committee have accused the report of displaying partisanship. The final report was approved by a vote of 9–6, with seven Democrats, one Independent, and one Republican voting in favour of publication and six Republicans voting in opposition. Critics of the report claimed that it was overly reliant on CIA documents. It did not conduct any interviews at all. Critics alleged that it was therefore insensitive to context and emphasis.

While Republican objections to the report could be seen as an attempt to prevent criticism of Bush’s Republican administration, there are some reasons to believe that the report was not wholly impartial. The report concentrates much of its fire on former CIA director Michael Hayden, a Bush appointee who didn't take office until the interrogation program was nearly over, while Clinton appointee George Tenet, a lifelong Democrat and former Intelligence Committee staff director who was director of the CIA when many believed that the torture program was at its most brutal, was spared criticism.

While the Senate Intelligence Committee report’s findings are disputed, there is a substantial body of evidence from other authoritative sources on the US’s use of torture during the Bush administration. One such source is the Intelligence Science Board, a body entrusted with the task of providing scientific advice to the United States’ intelligence community.

In 2009 they produced their study on 'Educing Information', a collection of 11 papers studying various aspects of the science and art of interrogation. The report begins by questioning the nature of the debate on the use of torture. It states that one could easily conclude from that debate that “coercive methods are not only effective, but also substantially more effective than non-coercive methods in obtaining actionable intelligence from resistant sources.” Further, it argues that even those who are opposed to the use of coercive methods have failed to challenge this argument, instead choosing to focus their arguments instead on whether torture is legal or moral.

The Board finds that “The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information”. It states that evidence procured under the use of torture can usually be acquired using conventional methods of interrogation. Furthermore, it finds that there is a significant “noise to signal ratio” problem. That is, if evidence is produced using torture, it is extremely difficult to ascertain the veracity of that evidence. Someone being subjected to, for instance, waterboarding may reveal a substantial amount of information in order to stop the waterboarding. But, the operatives may not be able to determine which parts of the information are true and which are false.

In the UK, most experts believe that the UK did not use torture during the War on Terror. However, critics argue that the UK government was complicit in the use of such methods by the US. The campaigning group Liberty alleges that the UK may have attempted to use evidence gained under torture during legal trials and assisted or encouraged the use of torture by the CIA.

There are many moral and legal objections to torture. However, in a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario, it is possible to imagine a situation where its use might be contemplated by otherwise ethical governments. The question of its effectiveness is therefore a crucial one. The use of torture by the CIA during the War on Terror has not been shown to produce intelligence that could not have been gained using conventional methods. In addition, the veracity of information gained through torture is difficult to confirm. Suspects may say anything to make the ordeal stop.

It is welcome news that President-elect Donald Trump appears to have been persuaded by such arguments, if not by ethical ones, and changed his mind on the future use of torture. If the United States under his Administration did resume the use of such practices, the British Government should be mindful of potential allegations that as a key ally and intelligence partner, it would be complicit in the practice.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue