Does Torture Work?

Frontline examines the brutality detailed in the Senate's report on CIA interrogations.


The rescue crews weren't even through sifting the rubble of the Sept. 11 attack when the debate over torture broke out: Is it necessary in the pursuit of the war on terror, and does it work, and is it right? Oddly, the argument seemed to fasten on the utilitarian side–does it work?–rather than the moral side–is it right?–despite the fact that we had practically no empirical data with which to measure success or failure. We knew practically nothing of who the government was questioning, how, what information was being produced, or what action it was leading to.

Fourteen years later, we've learned a lot about what was happening inside the interrogation rooms of the war on terror, but it often seems we know even less than we started. The latest cryptic artifact of this debate is "Secrets, Politics and Torture," an episode of PBS' Frontline documentary series, which tries to puzzle out the truth in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's hotly contested report on CIA and torture. (The episode airs tonight on PBS at 10 P.M. ET; details at bottom of this article.) 

Senate investigators spent six years and $50 million on the report, examining some six million pages of internal CIA documents before reaching the conclusion (among others) that the CIA's euphemistically labeled "enhanced interrogation techniques" were useless, producing no actionable intelligence that hadn't already been collected with the bare-knuckle approach.

But the report was hotly disputed by several of the committee's Republicans, and many of their objections cannot be dismissed as mere yahoo partisanship. The committee's exclusive reliance on documents–it did not conduct a single interview–leave it open to charges that it worked in a vacuum in which context and emphasis were not understood. And the fact that the report seems to concentrate its fire on former CIA director Michael Hayden, a Bush appointee who didn't take office until the interrogation program was nearly over, while sparing Clinton appointee George Tenet, the lifelong Democrat and former Intelligence Committee staff director who ran the CIA when the program was at its most brutal, certainly has a distinct whiff of politics about it.

The CIA gets its fair shot in "Secrets, Politics and Torture." Former deputy director John McLaughlin and general counsel John Rizzo (who was in charge of keeping the interrogations within legal, if not humanitarian, bounds) argue forcefully that they were carrying out Bush administration instructions with the legal blessing of the Justice Department, and that their work produced results. "It's a hit job on most of us," says the furious Rizzo of the committee report.

On the other side, Intelligence Committee members Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), are equally forceful in charging that the CIA "lied to its overseers, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence," as Udall puts it, in propagandizing in support of a needless exercise in sadism.

There's much to be said for the way "Secrets, Politics and Torture" deftly tells the story of the interrogation program. It offers up the not unreasonable belief of CIA officials that the sort of "committed, remorseless, psychopathic personality" that would commandeer civilian airliners and crash them into skyscrapers was not going to surrender much information to an ACLU-approved interrogation complete with Miranda warnings and evidentiary hearings for search warrants.

But it also documents the appalling costs of coloring outside the lines, starting with the real nature those "enhanced interrogation techniques": not just waterboarding but beatings, threats of mutilation with cordless drills, forced rectal feedings, ice-water baths, and prisoners stuffed in what amounts to dog carriers or chained to walls in a standing position for 17 days at a stretch. Small wonder that one detainee, left half-naked in a near-freezing cell following a typical round of such non-torture, died of hypothermia.

The CIA insists none of this stuff meets the legal definition of torture, but as they say, it's close enough for government work. Certainly the CIA was not anxious for the world to inspect its handiwork; when it was revealed that agency officers had recorded some of their interrogations, the CIA's head of operations ordered the tapes burned despite instructions from Rizzo to keep them.

The human damage from these medieval encounters went well beyond the victims. "Secrets, Politcs and Torture" describes CIA interrogators, horrified at their own acts, begging Washington to let them stop. And slippery slopes opened up, most notably at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers inflicted unspeakable acts of perversity and cruelty not on so-called high-value targets but random peasants.

Plenty of people viewing "Secrets, Politics and Torture" will conclude that nothing could be worth engaging in this kind of behavior. That, however, is very different than saying it produced nothing of value. And there, the documentary is much less convincing.

It makes much of the fact, for instance, that Khalid Shiekh Mohammad–the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, universally known as KSM–told some preposterous lies following his first round of waterboarding, including a yarn about sending operatives to Montana to recruit disgruntled black Americans for an al Qaeda terrorist attack.

But KSM and other detainees also lied when they weren't being tortured. And Sen. Feinstein's flat declaration that "waterboarding KSM 183 times did not work" simply fails the smell test. By all accounts, KSM provided a motherlode of useful intelligence to his captors. Are we seriously to believe not a single syllable of it ever followed a waterboarding? Feinstein and her allies seem to believe that a prisoner will say anything at all while being tortured, as long as it isn't true.

There's an interesting statistic presented in the Intelligence Committee report that does not appear in "Secrets, Politics and Torture," a claim that "seven of the 39 CIA detainees known to have been subjected to the CIA s enhanced interrogation techniques produced no intelligence while in CIA custody." Flipped on its head, those numbers tell a very different story: that 82 percent of the tortured prisoners talked. To me, that sounds very much like torture does work, at least in some ways at some times.

That's why the moral argument against torture–that its injuries are afflicted on the innocent as well as the guilty, and that it shreds the souls of the torturers as surely as it does the bodies of the tortured–is a lot better than the utilitarian one. Crime isn't wrong because it doesn't pay; it's wrong because it harms others.

Below, watch the first five minutes of tonight's episode of Frontline.

Frontline: Secrets, Politics and Torture: PBS. May 19, 10 p.m. EDT.