Interrogational torture

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Two United States soldiers and one South Vietnamese soldier waterboard a captured North Vietnamese prisoner of war near Da Nang, 1968.

Interrogational torture is the use of torture to obtain information in interrogation, as opposed to the use of torture to force a person to make a confession regardless of whether it is true or false. Torture has been used throughout history during interrogation, although it is now illegal and a violation of international law. Although there is limited information as to whether interrogational torture is ever an effective interrogation method, it frequently generates false or misleading information and can impair subsequent information collection.

Investigation of effectiveness[edit]

Governments that have used torture for interrogation on a large scale have not disclosed systematic information on how their torture programs were carried out, hampering efforts to investigate their effectiveness by those who lack access to classified information.[1] Young and Kearns state that "Experiments on whether or not torture is effective are extremely challenging to implement in a safe yet realistic way."[2] Ethical research studies require the informed consent of participants, making it impossible to experiment with nonconsensual torture.[3] In his book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, neuroscientist Shane O'Mara argues that coercive interrogation and torture damage the areas of the brain that recall information.[4] Although the CIA has argued that torture for information is a science, O'Mara argues that it is in fact pseudoscience.[5]

The checkability of confessions remains an important issue for the effectiveness of torture, since both the interrogator and the subject know that a checkable confession is more likely to be true.[6] Many torture survivors report revealing false or incomplete information since their goal was to satisfy the torturer and end the suffering, not to reveal information.[7]

In 2007, evaluating the available scientific evidence on the effectiveness of torture, Darius Rejali concludes: "In short, organized torture yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organizational capabilities, and destroys interrogators. Limited time during battle or emergency intensifies all these problems."[8] Rejali acknowledges that it is possible that torture may yield useful information in some cases, but in general "torture is the clumsiest method available to organizations".[8] According to a 2017 article in Journal of Strategic Studies, "scientific evidence, expert testimony, and the historical record show that coercive interrogation is not effective in eliciting reliable information from prisoners".[9] A 2017 review in Psychological Perspectives on Interrogation asserts that "Psychological theory and research shows that harsh interrogation methods are ineffective."[10]

Other scholars argue that we do not know enough about contemporary torture to conclude much about its efficacy. In the U.S. case, we don’t have enough information about how many detainees were tortured, how or how often, and how the information they provided differed from information provided by detainees who were not tortured. [11] Moreover, Americans find the claim that "torture doesn't work" to be unpersuasive: they believe that torture is quick and effective. In contrast, Americans find the claim that torture is cruel to be a far more persuasive argument against torture.[12]

Research on the history of torture suggests that torture has, at times, proven quite effective in extracting reliable information from reluctant detainees.[13] For example, in Toledo, Spain, the Inquisition interrogated 1046 people between 1575 and 1610. It tortured 123 of these people. Of those who were not tortured, 42% provided the court with evidence that the court considered useful. Of those were tortured, 29% collaborated, a remarkable rate since only the most steadfast individuals, who refused to collaborate without torture, were ultimately sent to the torture chamber.[14] The evidence revealed in the torture chambers of the Inquisition matched evidence provided by detainees that were not tortured: They named the same persons, places, religious practices, and events. During the Philippine War (1899-1902), Filipino detainees were subjected to “water torture”. According to one Senate Committee testimony, about two-thirds of those tortured collaborated and revealed the locations of weapons caches.[15] More recently in Iraq, Saddam Hussein ordered the torture of suspected regime opponents. Of the 31 detainees who later told scholars that they had indeed acted to undermine the regime, twelve (39%) also admitted that they had provided accurate information about their activities under torture.[16] Nonetheless, Hassner argues that it is impossible improvise quick and brutal torture and expect successful results: "Our society would have to acquiesce to a massive bureaucratized torture campaign, at times of peace or war, that targeted thousands, from all walks of life, regardless of culpability, to extract modest intelligence that was, at best, corroborative".[17]


Rejali states that the effectiveness of torture cannot be considered without investigating specific techniques and how they affect the victim's body and mind.[18] In the 2010s, research began to examine specific techniques for their effects. For example studies of sleep deprivation have found that there is a high risk of false statements or the interrogator even planting a false memory. O'Mara ran a study of simulated waterboarding, finding that it increased the recall of false memories. Charles A. Morgan III tested SERE techniques on volunteers and found that they reduced the reliability of eyewitness identification. Some research suggests that the greater number of coercive techniques that are applied, the greater likelihood of obtaining false information.[19]

Historical examples[edit]

Judicial use[edit]

Torture was routinely used for interrogation in ancient Greek and Roman law and in medieval Roman law (but not in ancient Hebrew or medieval English law). It was argued that torture could be relied on at least in cases where the result could be checked (for example, if the accused confessed to burying the murder weapon under a certain tree, the judge should send someone to dig it up.)[20] But confessions under torture were believed in a wide range of uncheckable cases, such as heresy and witchcraft.[citation needed]

Military use[edit]

World War II[edit]

After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, the Japanese secret police tortured a captured American P-51 fighter pilot, Marcus McDilda, to discover how many atomic bombs the Allies had and what the future targets were. McDilda, who had originally told his captors he knew nothing about the atomic bomb (and who indeed knew nothing about nuclear fission), "confessed" under further torture that the US had 100 atomic bombs and that Tokyo and Kyoto were the next targets.[21]

Interrogation was only the source of a subset of the Gestapo's intelligence; it heavily relied on voluntary denunciations and use of informers.[22] The Gestapo tortured leaders of several national resistance movements but most did not break.[23]

1992 US Army Field Manual[edit]

FM 34-52 Intelligence Interrogation, the United States Army field manual, explains that torture "is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."[24]

War on Terror and 2003 invasion of Iraq[edit]

False information about a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda was extracted from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi through torture[25][26] and was cited by the George W. Bush Administration in the months preceding its 2003 invasion of Iraq.[27][28] That information was frequently repeated by members of the Bush Administration, although reports from both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) strongly questioned its credibility, suggesting that al-Libi was "intentionally misleading" interrogators.[29] The CIA Inspector General's 2004 Special Review of Counterterrorism, Detention and Interrogation Activities does not support the position that torture is effective for interrogation.[30]

Since the revelations in 2004 and 2008 that the President George W. Bush administration authorized the use of torture in interrogations, and that United States personnel have used such practices in interrogations related to the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda, both at black sites and at Guantánamo Bay detention camp, discussions on the topic have been heated. In commenting on the use and effectiveness of various torture methods, with a focus on waterboarding, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, wrote in 2009 that "high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used".[31] However, a Senate Committee that investigated claims of useful information being extracted from suspects that underwent enhanced interrogation concluded that critical and valuable information was not obtained using these methods.[32] The 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture also concluded that the CIA had repeatedly and deliberately impeded oversight and misrepresented the effectiveness of torture as an interrogation technique to policymakers and to the public through coordinated leaking of false information.[33]: 4 [34]

Public opinion[edit]

Many people believe that torture works, or that it can even provide a silver bullet in counterterrorism efforts.[35][36] The TV show 24 depicted torture as effective, increasing support for torture among Americans.[37] Research indicates that some Americans will support torture if they believe it is effective, but also a non-negligible number will support torture even if they do not perceive it as an effective source of intelligence.[37]

Public opinion on the use of torture for interrogation varies widely, with the lowest support recorded in West European countries and the highest support found in Turkey and South Korea (where most respondents supported the use of torture for interrogation) as well as in Kenya, Nigeria, and India among 31 countries surveyed between 2006 and 2008.[38] A 2016 ICRC survey of 16 nations found that support for torture to obtain military information was highest in Israel, Nigeria, the U.S.A, and Iraq, and lowest in Yemen, Colombia, Switzerland, and China.[39][40] A study by Jeremy D. Mayer, Naoru Koizumi, and Ammar Anees Malik found that opposition to the usage of torture in interrogation was correlated with stronger political rights but not economic development or the threat of terrorism.[41] According to one study, people who believe torture is inherently immoral are more likely to believe it is ineffective.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hassner 2020, pp. 2, 25.
  2. ^ Young & Kearns 2020, p. 161.
  3. ^ Fritz Allhoff, ed. (2008). Physicians at war: the dual-loyalties challenge. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781402069123 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Jacobson 2017, p. 102.
  5. ^ O’Mara, Shane; Schiemann, John (2019). "Torturing science: Science, interrogational torture, and public policy". Politics and the Life Sciences. 38 (2): 180–192. doi:10.1017/pls.2019.15. PMID 32412207. S2CID 213485074.
  6. ^ Franklin, James (2009). "Evidence gained from torture: wishful thinking, checkability and extreme circumstances" (PDF). Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law. 17 (2): 281–290. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  7. ^ Costanza, Mark A.; Gerrity, Ellen (December 2009). "The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate" (PDF). Social Issues and Policy Review. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 April 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  8. ^ a b Rejali 2009, p. 478.
  9. ^ Jacobson 2017, pp. 101–102.
  10. ^ Vrij et al. 2017, p. 927.
  11. ^ Hassner 2020a.
  12. ^ Hassner, Ron E. (2022). "Persuasive and Unpersuasive Critiques of Torture". Perspectives on Politics: 1–14. doi:10.1017/S1537592721004138.
  13. ^ Hassner 2020a, pp. 7, 26.
  14. ^ Hassner 2020b, pp. 17, 22, 24.
  15. ^ Einolf 2014, p. 56.
  16. ^ Einolf 2021, p. 6.
  17. ^ Hassner 2020b, p. 36.
  18. ^ Rejali 2009, p. 92.
  19. ^ Rejali 2009, pp. 95–96.
  20. ^ Franklin, James (2001). The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-8018-6569-7.
  21. ^ Jerome T. Hagen (1996). War in the Pacific, Chapter 25 "The Lie of Marcus McDilda". Hawaii Pacific University. pp. 159–160. ISBN 978-0-9653927-0-9.
  22. ^ Rejali 2009, pp. 493–494.
  23. ^ Rejali 2009, p. 496.
  24. ^ United States Department of the Army (28 September 1992). FM 34-52: Intelligence Interrogation (PDF). pp. 1–8.
  25. ^ Schecter, Cliff (2008). The Real McCain. PoliPointPress. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-9794822-9-8.
  26. ^ "Rand Beers". The Washington Monthly. January 2008. Archived from the original on 23 June 2011. Retrieved 2 September 2010. was interrogated by both the United States and Egypt, and—as was publicly reported—tortured by Egyptian authorities
  27. ^ Isikoff, Michael; Mark Hosenball (11 June 2008). "Spies, Lies and the White House". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 15 June 2008. Retrieved 23 April 2009.
  28. ^ Isikoff, Michael; Mark Hosenball (12 May 2009). "Death in Libya". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 16 March 2010. Retrieved 13 May 2009.
  29. ^ Bush's War Archived 11 December 2018 at the Wayback Machine. Directed by Michael Kirk. Frontline. 25 March 2008
  30. ^ Blakeley 2011, p. 244.
  31. ^ "Interrogations' Effectiveness May Prove Elusive". The New York Times. 22 April 2009. Archived from the original on 23 November 2018. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  32. ^ Burke, Jason (26 January 2017). "Does torture work – and is it worth the cost?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 30 December 2018.
  33. ^ "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, Foreword by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, Findings and Conclusions, Executive Summary" (PDF). United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 December 2014. Retrieved 15 June 2015. Declassification Revisions December 3, 2014
  34. ^ Mazzetti, Mark (9 December 2014). "Senate Torture Report Condemns C.I.A. Interrogation Program". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 December 2014. Retrieved 9 June 2014.
  35. ^ Hassner 2020, p. 7.
  36. ^ Janoff-Bulman 2007, p. 429.
  37. ^ a b Young & Kearns 2020, p. 156.
  38. ^ Miller, Peter (2011). "Torture Approval in Comparative Perspective". Human Rights Review. 12 (4): 441–463. doi:10.1007/s12142-011-0190-2. ISSN 1874-6306. S2CID 55720374.
  39. ^ Schlein, Lisa. "Survey: Acceptance of Torture During War Growing". Voice of America.
  40. ^ Kevin Sieff (5 December 2016). "More Americans support torture than Afghans, Iraqis and South Sudanese. Why?". The Washington Post.
  41. ^ Mayer, Jeremy D.; Koizumi, Naoru; Malik, Ammar Anees (2014). "Does Terror Cause Torture? A Comparative Study of International Public Opinion about Governmental Use of Coercion". Examining Torture: Empirical Studies of State Repression. Palgrave Macmillan US. pp. 43–61. ISBN 978-1-137-43916-1.
  42. ^ Leidner et al. 2018, p. 3.


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