"If I Break Someone, How Do I Know He Told Us Everything?"

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Spencer Ackerman has a deeply-reported story on torture—and what the government knows about its ineffectiveness—up at the Washington Independent.

The question of what the administration calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" have actually gained the U.S. continues to roil many at Langley. Around 2005, members of both civilian and military intelligence agencies asked the Intelligence Science Board to conduct a study about the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to interrogations. The resulting multi-volume study, "Educing Information," was published in December 2006. It's practically a cri de coeur against torture, urging intelligence agencies instead to rely on non-physical, non-coercive techniques like building rapports with detainees—much like the FBI does, and much like what worked 60 years ago at places like Fort Hunt against hardened, sadistic Nazi officers. "We tried to write it very carefully," said one of its authors, who asked for anonymity as to not alienate the intelligence community. "We used terms like 'we've been unable to find' [that torture works] or 'this looks promising.'" A subsequent volume is due out, perhaps later this year.

Few involved with the project have direct knowledge of interrogations, but most are highly skeptical of claims made by the Bush administration that the brutal interrogations have yielded valuable information. "Look at George Tenet's book," said one. "He says, it would have been good if we stopped 9/11 and we blew it on WMD, but we got good info from KSM. Well, I read it. He's not gonna say we went oh-for-three.

"But even if we did [get solid information from torture]," he continued, "we don't have a basis for knowing that. Look at the language choice: 'break.' If I break someone, how do we know if he told us everything? Does that fit in with human experience? It doesn't fit in with my experience. Even the notion of breaking someone, it doesn't connect, though its a pop-culture stereotype out there. A subject is responding to questions, but they have very important information they never offer up because you didn't ask the right questions, and because you 'broke' them."

Last year Jim Henley shredded the "ticking time bomb" scenario.

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  1. It’s good to know that there are still Romans amongst us. You know, the kind where testimony from a slave was inadmissible unless derived under torture.

  2. “But even if we did [get solid information from torture],” he continued, “we don’t have a basis for knowing that. Look at the language choice: ‘break.’ If I break someone, how do we know if he told us everything? Does that fit in with human experience? It doesn’t fit in with my experience. Even the notion of breaking someone, it doesn’t connect, though its a pop-culture stereotype out there. A subject is responding to questions, but they have very important information they never offer up because you didn’t ask the right questions, and because you ‘broke’ them.””

    That all is true, but if I talk to him and give him a steak dinner and tell him how great he is, how do I know he is not lying to me then? There is no way to tell if a person is telling the truth. That is why you have to rely on multiple sources and check things out. It seems to me that the most you can say is that torture is no more effective than regular interrogation, but I don’t see the evidence where it is less effective, since every criticism the guy makes of torture you could also make of any other interrogation techniques.

    One thing that is effective is the threat of such threatment or the belief by the subject that bad things could happen to him. I don’t really see why the US should get its hands dirty torturing people when all it has to do is say “fine you don’t want to talk to us, no problem, we will leave you alone, but our friends the Saudis or the Pakistanis would like to talk to you.” I would imagine that threat combined with some good treatment would get just as far or farther than waterboarding and the like.

  3. Did anyone else see the inverview with the FBI interrogator who worked with Saddam on 60 Minutes last night?

    That dude knew what he was doing, and he said “any fear-based approach” would have been useless.

    Not even “no torture-based approach.”

  4. That all is true, but if I talk to him and give him a steak dinner and tell him how great he is, how do I know he is not lying to me then?

    You keep talking to him for weeks or months, using the rapport you’ve developed with him and the fact that he’s unafraid enough to open up, to go at the same question from different angles and see if his story remains consistent as more and more information comes out of him.

    The FBI knows this. The CIA knows this.

    I don’t see the evidence where it is less effective The people we tortured, like Curveball, told their captors that Saddam was working with bin Laden and had active WMD programs. Saddam told his FBI interrogator when and how the weapons were destroyed, and that he wouldn’t work with bin Laden because he was a dangerous fanatic. There’s your evidence.

  5. I would think (and I have no fucking clue what I am talking about here) that scaring the shit out of someone by making them afraid that you are going to do terrible things to them, and then NOT doing those things but in fact being pretty nice, would be very effective. Good cop bad cop, essentially. No need for violence at all.

  6. “don’t see the evidence where it is less effective The people we tortured, like Curveball, told their captors that Saddam was working with bin Laden and had active WMD programs. Saddam told his FBI interrogator when and how the weapons were destroyed, and that he wouldn’t work with bin Laden because he was a dangerous fanatic. There’s your evidence.”

    Who is to say that those people wouldn’t have said the same things had they not been tortured? You just don’t know. Have people lied under torture? Yes. They have also told the truth to. Poeple have also lied when treated well. Not every interrogation results in usable intelligence. Some people just don’t break or don’t know anything or what they do know if false. Who is to say curveball didn’t honeslty believe what he said? The otherside uses disinformation to.

  7. I don’t really see why the US should get its hands dirty torturing people when all it has to do is say “fine you don’t want to talk to us, no problem, we will leave you alone, but our friends the Saudis or the Pakistanis would like to talk to you.” I would imagine that threat combined with some good treatment would get just as far or farther than waterboarding and the like.

    Oh John, that system does get great information.

    Abdallah Higazy charged that FBI Special Agent Michael Templeton coerced him into making a false confession by threatening to have the U.S. government contact the Egyptian security services and make his family’s life in Egypt a “living hell.”

    Higazy, initially detained as a material witness in the terror investigation on Dec. 17, 2001, spent 31 days in solitary confinement. He was freed only after a security guard at the Millennium Hilton Hotel admitted he had lied when he told FBI agents he had found the radio in a locked safe in Higazy’s hotel room on the 51st floor.

    The lie was uncovered when another guest who had been evacuated from the hotel on Sept. 11, an airline pilot, returned to claim his possessions and demanded his radio back.

    Yep, when the interrogator treats you well, but threatens to have your sister raped by Egyptian secret police, I’m sure you will be completely truthful with him, and won’t merely tell him what you think he wants to hear so that she won’t be brutalized.

  8. Scared people will only do what is required to avoid the thing they fear, which means they will only go so far as to jump through the hoops you already know to set up for them.

    Piro, the FBI agent interviewed last talked, about Saddam volunteering and coming up with stuff on his own, because he liked him and depended on him and could manipulated to actually take the initiative to provide novel information about novel subjects.

  9. We can play “Who’s to know” all day, John.

    We’ve got an actual record to work with here.

  10. Like the Bush administration is going to pay attention to a report from an organization with the word “science” in it title?

    Fat chance.

  11. Torture has never been about getting reliable information from hardened fighters.

    It’s usually been used to extract false confessions, the content of which had already been decided upon by the toturers.

    Spanish Inquisition, Chicago and Paris police stations, NKVD, Khmer Rouge, Great Cultural Revolution…

  12. If any evidence on any subject doesn’t fit with preconceived notions, the Bush administration will ignore it. If you can psychoanalyze an administration, Nixon’s was paranoid, Bush’s is delusional.

  13. If any evidence on any subject doesn’t fit with preconceived notions, the Bush administration will ignore it.

    Now, imagine a guy with a cloth and a bucket of water taking that attitude while quesitoning a prisoner.

  14. While agreeing with the general thrust of this, it’s important not to talk up softly-softly interrogation too much.

    Sure, some subjects will identify with their interrogators and talk. Others will find it relatively easy to resist these tactics however.

    That’s not to make a case for torture, but just to point out that – with a number of prisoners who are not co-operating – the temptation to up-the-ante will remain.

  15. I don’t see the evidence where it is less effective, since every criticism the guy makes of torture you could also make of any other interrogation techniques.

    “Oh, Christ; if this guy tries to tell me what his kid did in school again, I’m going to admit I shot President McKinley, just to shut him up.”

  16. Dave Weigel, you are a journalist. I would like you to meet a friend of mine named Mr. FOIA. He can help you be more productive in doing your job. Now, we know that some torture tapes were destroyed, but . . .

  17. For some reason, the circular logic of torture interrogation intel put me in mind of a scene in Miller’s Crossing, after the Dane has shot and wounded one of Leo’s bodyguards:

    Eddie Dane: Where is Leo?

    Man: If I tell you, how do know you won’t kill me?

    Dane: Because if you told me, and I killed you, and you were lying, I wouldn’t get to kill you then. Now where’s Leo?

    Man: . . . He’s — he’s moving around. But tomorrow night he’s getting his mob together at Whiskey Nick’s.

    [Dane points gun at Man’s head.]

    Dane: You sure?

    Man: Check it. It’s gold.

    Dane: You know something, yegg? I believe you.

    [BANG.]

  18. Not only is it possible for somebody to deliberately lie under torture, it’s also possible that the torturer won’t believe the truth, so he’ll keep on torturing until the story changes.

  19. “Then I wondered ‘Why would Einstein want to talk to a gorilla?’ So I beat it out of him.”

    The Dane understood how to torture people. You beat them until they corroborate your already decided-upon conclusion.

  20. urging intelligence agencies instead to rely on non-physical, non-coercive techniques like building rapports with detainees-much like . . . what worked 60 years ago at places like Fort Hunt against hardened, sadistic Nazi officers

    I’ve seen this canard repeated a few times, and it’s important to note that it’s misleading. While it’s true that interrogators at Fort Hunt usually did try to build a rapport and pamper the prisoners, they also outsourced their hard cases to the Soviets or used the threat of the Soviets to break hold outs. They also used fake death threats to elicit information on occasion, going so far as to put a prisoner in a locked room and pump “poisonous gas” (which was actually harmless) into the room until he talked.

    I know a claim like this needs backup, and you can listen to an interview with one of the interrogators here: thestory.org/archive/the_story_403_Listening_To_Nazis.mp3/view

  21. Of all the disgusting things I’ve seen my government do, torture is by far the most disgusting.

    I am still calling for Bush and company to answer for war crimes over the whole torture thing.

    To anyone who defends torture,FUCK YOU

  22. Virtual Memories,

    Johnny Caspar: I’m talkin’ about ethics.

    Damn, I love that movie. Thanks.

  23. People who have survived torture seem to have a very wide range of responses to their experiences. There must be many complex explanations for this; to do with their personalities, the extent they were psychologically prepared for the possibility of torture by their ideology or training, their religious and cultural make-up. It seems to me that for someone to evaluate the reliability of information extracted under torture, a vast amount of this kind of deep knowledge about the subject of the torture would be required, to see if it is credible, cogent and coherent in the context of its source. This deep knowledge of the personality and history of the subject is not something a person who has just tortured someone, without having had a previous in-depth personal knowledge and rapport with them, would be in a position to have. Once they have ‘broken’ the person it would be too late to get this kind of textured information to enable the analysis to be meaningful. So the information would need to be corroborated from an independently reliable source, which begs the question: why torture a person anyway, if such a source already exists?

  24. Howabout instead of trying to find a solution to the effect (terrorism i guess) we try and reduce the cause (being complete douchebags to the rest of the world).

    Or just nuke the middle east and be done with it. No one will really care (at least i won’t).

  25. The answer to the question “Why torture?” can be found in the terminology; “breaking” a human being is not a function of the quest for knowledge, it is a function of a need for baboon-style dominance on a personal and cultural level.

    And-
    What Warren said.

  26. Fifteen years from now, they’ll be waterboarding drug dealers, and no one will raise a finger in protest.

  27. Hey, Episiarch, is that how you taught Drop his story?

  28. You are so goddamn smart. Except you ain’t.

  29. “The Dane understood how to torture people. You beat them until they corroborate your already decided-upon conclusion.”

    Of course, it’s purely coincidental that, in that instance, the Dane’s already decided-upon conclusion happened to be the correct one, more-or-less…

    A woman I went out with a couple of times in college called “Miller’s Crossing” a “perfect” movie. I can’t find any way to disagree with her.

  30. It’s easy.

    You torture the person without questioning until they beg for death. You then ask what you want to know and tell them if they answer truthfully they will be killed quickly, while if they lie they will be kept alive for months of more torture.

    Works like a dream, usually.

  31. Works like a dream, usually.

    You have statistics to back up that “usually”, do you? Or are you speaking from personal experience?

  32. Fifteen years from now, they’ll be waterboarding drug dealers, and no one will raise a finger in protest.

    Sadly, I imagine that would be the case if it happened today.

  33. Fifteen years from now, they’ll be waterboarding drug dealers, and no one will raise a finger in protest.

    Hardly anyone seems concerned about sending them to prison to be ass-raped for years on end, so I would have to agree.

    Frankly, I’d rather be waterboarded.

  34. Frankly, I’d rather be waterboarded.

    Glenn Beck has been saying over the past few eeks that he’d like to be waterboarded to prove that it’s not torture.

    I’d pay to see it…

  35. Of course, it’s purely coincidental that, in that instance the script, the Dane’s already decided-upon conclusion happened to be the correct one, more-or-less…

  36. Glenn Beck has been saying over the past few weeks that he’d like to be waterboarded to prove that it’s not torture.

    I’d pay to see it…

    I’d pay double to do it.

  37. jim henley’s piece on the ‘ticking time bomb scenario’ is the final word on the subject.

  38. Torture is what you use to get the answer you want.

  39. Until he proves me wrong, Glenn Beck is talking shit. He has enough resourses to get it done. If he really wanted to, he would do it first, then talk about it.

  40. Episiarch — I’ve never understood that whole slave-torture-testimony thing. Isn’t the main usefulness of torture that the threat of pain prompts someone to talk rather than be subjected to pain? So wouldn’t many slaves talk immediately without needing to be tortured, if they knew torture was a possibility? So did any testifying slave have to experience some brief torture procedure before he could speak? Was the belief that the pain itself made someone more honest, akin perhaps to the inquisatorial notion of purification through pain?

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