Effectiveness of torture for interrogation

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Torture has been used throughout history for the purpose of obtaining information in interrogation. Torture, while widely illegal and a violation of international law, has been frequently cited as generating false or misleading information, and lacks scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness. The counterargument claims to point to some specific cases[which?] where torture has elicited true information.

Historical examples[edit]

Judicial use[edit]

17th century[edit]

One early writer on the ineffectiveness of torture was Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), a German Jesuit priest, professor, and poet who was most noted as an opponent of trials for witchcraft. He was the first person in his time to present strong written and spoken arguments against torture, especially with regards to its unreliability in obtaining "truth" from someone undergoing painful questioning.[1]

Military use[edit]

World War II[edit]

After the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the Japanese military 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 knew nothing about the atomic bomb or the Manhattan Project, "confessed" under torture that the US had 100 atomic bombs and that Tokyo and Kyoto were the next targets. McDilda's false confession may have swayed the Japanese leaders' decision to surrender.[2][3]

Korean War[edit]

Chinese interrogators tortured US Air Force prisoners of war during the Korean War with the specific goal of eliciting false confessions.[4] After the war, the false confessions led to allegations that the airmen had been "brainwashed" and so the United States interviewed the former prisoners of war to collect information on the torture techniques and published the results in 1957.[5] The torture techniques were incorporated into the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program to train servicemembers to resist torture.[4]

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."[6] Torture is ineffective at gathering reliable information, and it also increases the difficulty of gathering information from a source in the future.

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[7][8] and was cited by the George W. Bush Administration in the months preceding its 2003 invasion of Iraq.[9][10] 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.[11]

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".[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]:4[15]

Alex Knapp, a staff writer at Forbes, wrote the following in 2009, "Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps."[16] He had written an article about an FBI interrogator who noted that its practice did not include torture. FBI agents had registered strong disapproval of the US military approach.[16]

Annette Sisco argues that "the [torture] techniques... are specifically designed to make captives pliable and dependent. They are designed to get prisoners to say whatever you want them to say."[17] 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.[18]

The book Pediatricians at War: the Dual-Loyalties Challenge by Fritz Allhoff explains that "to test the effectiveness of torture researchers would have to ignore the consent of the research subjects".[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld: Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials (1631), translated by Marcus Hellyer. University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8139-2182-1. The translator's introduction (pp. vii–xxxvi) contains many details on Spee's life.
  2. ^ Jerome T. Hagen (1996). War in the Pacific, Chapter 25 "The Lie of Marcus McDilda". Hawaii Pacific University. ISBN 978-0-9653927-0-9.
  3. ^ Kristof, Nicholas (5 August 2003). "Blood On Our Hands?". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b Shane, Scott (2 July 2008). "China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 December 2012.
  5. ^ Biderman, Albert D. (September 1957). "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War". Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 33 (9): 616–625. PMC 1806204. PMID 13460564.
  6. ^ United States Department of the Army (28 September 1992). FM 34-52: Intelligence Interrogation (PDF). pp. 1–8.
  7. ^ Schecter, Cliff (2008). The Real McCain. PoliPointPress. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-9794822-9-8.
  8. ^ "Rand Beers". The Washington Monthly. January 2008. Archived from the original on June 23, 2011. Retrieved September 2, 2010. was interrogated by both the United States and Egypt, and—as was publicly reported—tortured by Egyptian authorities
  9. ^ Isikoff, Michael; Mark Hosenball (June 11, 2008). "Spies, Lies and the White House". Newsweek. Archived from the original on June 13, 2008. Retrieved April 23, 2009.
  10. ^ Isikoff, Michael; Mark Hosenball (12 May 2009). "Death in Libya". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 16 March 2010. Retrieved 13 May 2009.
  11. ^ Bush's War Archived 11 December 2018 at the Wayback Machine. Directed by Michael Kirk. Frontline. March 25, 2008
  12. ^ "Interrogations' Effectiveness May Prove Elusive". New York Times. 22 April 2009. Archived from the original on 23 November 2018. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  13. ^ Burke, Jason (26 January 2017). "Does torture work – and is it worth the cost?". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 30 December 2018.
  14. ^ "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
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ a b "An FBI Interrogator on the Effectiveness of Torture". Outsidethebeltway.com. 10 September 2009. Archived from the original on 10 February 2012. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  17. ^ Annette Sisco. "How effective is torture? Not very | NOLA.com". The Times-Picayune/ Blog.nola.com. Archived from the original on 19 August 2009. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Fritz Allhoff, ed. (2008). Physicians at war: the dual-loyalties challenge. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781402069123 – via Google Books.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]