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November 19, 2007

Yet Another Reason Why Torture Doesn’t Work
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:30 AM * 39 comments

Air Force Reserve Col. Steve Kleinman, a longtime military interrogator and intelligence officer, talks about what using torture loses you in a ticking-time-bomb (or any other) scenario:

It’s not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues — “clusters, groupings of behaviors,” Kleinman called them — provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he’s lying, when he’s being uncooperative, and when he’s being truthful, or a combination of the three.

But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then “I don’t know whether he’s shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating,” Kleinman said. That degree of abuse “takes away a lot of my tools.” It’s one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security.

Via The Carpetbagger Report

Comments on Yet Another Reason Why Torture Doesn't Work:
#1 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 12:03 PM:

ginmar just posted about training new soldiers in interrogation, and made a related point -- that being polite to someone when she didn't know who they were or what they knew never did any harm, but gave her room to maneuver.

Wish she could train certain other people who don't seem to understand this.

#2 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 01:19 PM:

Torture apologists want to torture. They want to torture because it's revenge. All of the nonsense about ticking time bombs is just a smokescreen.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 01:30 PM:

Another point frequently missed by the ticking-time-bomb people is that if you know enough to know that there is a ticking bomb and that one particular person knows where and when it will go off, you already know enough to find and stop that bomb via standard police methods even if that one person never says a word.

#4 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 01:43 PM:

I posted that torture not only doesn't help you find intel needles in the haystack, I think it produces more hay. All the false positives you get from people wanting the torture to stop are just that many more things you've got to sort through to figure out if they're real or not.

Torturing people makes just about every aspect of a situation worse, functionally, and morally. Not to mention the long term effect of torturing a group is just a recruitment poster for your enemy.

Do we really want any kind of workable peace? Or do we really want to torture so badly that we're willing to sign up for an eternal war?

#5 ::: JoXn Costello ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 01:44 PM:

In regards to #3, I really wish someone with more understanding of standard police procedure would flesh that statement out for me because I'd love to be able to use it in an argument and back it up.

(I think that torture is always immoral. But I've gradually come to realize that there are many wrong-headedly "pragmatic" folks who aren't swayed by that none-too-radical position, but may be persuadable with pragmatic arguments, so it kind of behooves me to have a quiver full of them.)

#6 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 01:46 PM:

In fact, in a ticking time bomb scenario, the torturee has every reason to "pretend" to break under the torture and send you on a wild goose chase that will send all your resources into the wrong direction until it's way too late. It's their best and most effective way of striking a blow even after they're been captured.

Do we have any effective way to determine whether someone under torture has really broken versus just pretending to? Okay, if they break down sobbing when you bring out the waterboard, isn't that a little too soon? But wouldn't they plan on "holding out" long enough to convince you they're beaten? Knowing that if they can hold on just long enough they'll be convincing?

(Add in to this the complication that many of the people likely to be terrorists are likely to be "fanatics" who believe their deaths only advance their cause and/or provide a direct entrance to Heaven.)

#7 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 02:18 PM:

Connie H: the Inquisition had strict procedures. Which, when they were applied properly, started with: showing the subject the instruments, telling them in detail what they could do, and then giving the subject an opportunity to think things over. In many cases, giving the prisoner's own imagination room to work was all it took to get a confession.

If the subject held out, called the torturer's bluff and forced them to actually use the tools, their eventual confession would as likely as turn out to be a confabulation intended to make the torturer desist rather than the truth.

There's a reason why even the Gestapo were skeptical about torture as an interrogation tool -- unlike the vile nutjobs in the Bush administration, the Gestapo weren't completely detached from reality. (Evil, sadistic thugs and killers, yes: but also realistic about the efficacy of their own tools.)

#8 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 02:36 PM:

JoXn Costello @ 5, someone with more knowledge of police procedure ought to check me, but here's what I think:

In order to capture someone, know who he is, know for a fact that he knows where a bomb is -- you must know enough about him and his movements and his compatriots that you would already be able to figure out where a bomb is likely to be.

#9 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 02:41 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 7:

... their eventual confession would as likely as turn out to be a confabulation intended to make the torturer desist rather than the truth.
"As likely"?   No, no, no.   Much much more likely.   Odds on the order of 99.9repeating %.

Unless you think people really were engaged in vast Satanic cults, or (in Jim's terms) flying around Brocken on brooms, and it was just a matter of getting the guilty ones to tell the truth.

#10 ::: RiceVermicelli ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 02:48 PM:

If I was a terrorist (not that I am, as we know from previous conversations, I'm a forty-year old pervert surfing the web in my underwear), and if I had planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, I am fairly sure that I would be clever enough to come up with a list of really time-consuming places to search. So that, if I were tortured, I would have a bunch of answers in my pocket that would make the investigators dig up, say, half a shopping mall, or the newly-cemented portion of a construction site.

#11 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 02:53 PM:

JoXn Costello: The "ticking bomb" *justification* is that one knows the person in the hot seat knows where the bomb is, and when it's going to go off.

The only way one can be absolutely certain is to have a large amount of, independently, corroborative evidence. To get that much evidence will provide enough other information to obviate the need to torture.

The key issue is the "certainty" which is a staple of the myth of the ticking bomb. We can, so the argument goes, torture the subject because he's not a suspect, we know he's the guy who knows.

Therefore we aren't torturing an innocent person, and that makes the claim of justification acceptable.

The only way to be so certain is for other people to have, verifiable, evidence of the bomb. They saw it, or sold parts for it, or helped assemble it, or were told of the plan; and it was solid enough to be believed.

Get that many people (enough to know... say Terry Nichols telling you he helped McVeigh make some ANFo, and there was a receipt for the purchase of lots of AN, and a credit card charge for diesel and the guy who gave him the dynamite to initiate the charge, and his buying an alarm clock at the Radio Shack next door to the Ryder rental place.

With all of that you can say McVeigh is building a bomb, and it has a timer. And if you ask those people enough follow up, the indica will lead you to McVeigh's anger over Waco, his plans to go to Oklahoma City and the casing of the Murrah building.

Which means you don't have to torture him to get the information.

#12 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 03:35 PM:

Terry Karney @ 11: Yes, Terry, but only by torture can we get the really useful information, such as that everyone we grabbed at random off the street was also involved in the OKC bombing (with their confessions fueling our high prosecution success rate and our future political career) -- or that traditional enemies for once worked together in great amity to commit the 9/11 attacks (justifying our invading and overthrowing their nations) -- or that the neighbor whose property we want is guilty of whatever great crime sanctions our taking that property. One delightful aspect is that the people we torture don't actually have to know anything.

Torture works perfectly well for such eminently practical purposes. Why quibble over the trivial detail that it doesn't work as well at getting the truth? After all, then we'd have to waste our time looking for people who do know something.

#13 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 03:38 PM:

Pyre: you are clearly one of the staffers from the Stiftung Leo Strauss, and I claim my five reichmarks.

#14 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 04:03 PM:

We do not torture prisoners for information. We torture enemies for confessions.

#15 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 05:11 PM:

"The ticking bomb is on Dantooine."

#16 ::: jayskew ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 06:23 PM:

People who want to torture don't want it for revenge. They want it because the like to inflict pain, and because they want to oppress people.

Torture isn't a tool of intelligence-gathering: it's a tool of oppression.

'Now it appears that sleep deprivation is "only" CID and used on Guantanamo Bay captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin's "show trials" of the 1930s. The henchmen called it "conveyer," when a prisoner was interrogated nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.'

--Vladimir Bukovsky, "Torture's Long Shadow," Washington Post, 18 Dec 2005

#17 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 07:36 PM:

Christopher@15, see, it's shit like that that makes me keep coming back to threads like this.

Now that is funny.


#18 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 08:03 PM:
Do we really want any kind of workable peace? Or do we really want to torture so badly that we're willing to sign up for an eternal war?
If you're thinking of eternal war as a bug, and not as a feature, then you're not thinking like the administration. War is the goal: it gets people to look the other way while you rob and manipulate them, and gives you a convenient scapegoat for anything that happens. War against a nebulous, ill-defined concept (I first wrote entity, but actually terrorism isn't even an entity) that could be hiding around any corner and under any rock is even better. The fact that it's unwinnable just means you never, ever have to give the war powers back or let civilians unearth your past deeds.
#19 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 08:24 PM:

Wasn't the whole point of working in cells, where you only know your cellmates and leader, and maybe one or two message drops to contact others -- wasn't that ALL to ensure that you only knew what you needed to know. You could never reveal to captors (or your wife or significant (or insignificant) other) the details of the top secret plan B because you didn't know.

So interrogation or torture would only reveal the limited details you knew, and so would reveal very little indeed -- unless you were one of the big planners or leaders, in which case you shouldn't be caught alive anyway.

In Friday, Heinlein had the heroine tell all to her captors -- standard policy for operatives as future drugs made interrogation almost 100% effective. Unfortunately for her, the captors then used torture to 'confirm' the details that she had been quite willing to already spill with and without drugs. Since she knew little at all that could be used against her employers, she had nothing to hold back.

#20 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 10:34 PM:

Chris #18 (from Greg #4), yes, the uses of 'eternal war' to the PTB is one of the major points of Nineteen Eighty-four, a work which has a wide variety of lessons applicable to the current situation to do with manipulation of people en masse and individually; as well as torture. Orwell was mainly occupied there, I think, with power and control, rather than with cupidity and the kleptocracy, which we have seen so much intimately intertwined with power and oppression.

Meanwhile, the "ticking bomb" scenario is set up, as others have said with "certainty", which I think is rather like frictionless pulleys or perfectly spherical cows in maths or physics problems. It's putting in the assumptions you need to get the answer you want. Actual engineers & builders attempting to follow those are simply building in failure. One of the best comments I know on "certainty" is Jacob Bronowski's, from The Ascent of Man episode called "Knowledge and Certainty".

(Earlier this year 1984 was the book reading (in ~10 minute episodes) on the Australian ABC's Radio National. I couldn't listen to the whole series, but was sitting in a little grassy patch between the blocks of flats overlooking Sydney Harbour eating lunch and listening when the 'Room 101' episode was broadcast. It took me some time to compose myself enough to walk back through the streets and into work, even though I knew exactly what would happen. More powerful than my reading the book, where I can often insulate myself emotionally and 'glide' across the words, to have the voice.)

Some of the other references to the actual, as opposed to the publicized, uses of torture are in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Arthur London's The Confession (some info here. Also a film by Constantin Costa-Gavras called L'Aveu) and, in another thread on ML, a letter of Johannes Junius from 1628.

#21 ::: Alex Nixon ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2007, 10:44 PM:

This is a great topic, especially given that we aren't nearly out of the woods yet on the shameful abuse of prisoners.

Michael Ignatieff wrote in "A Lesser Evil" (pages 136-144) that we should ban torture at all times, especially in "Ticking Time Bomb" cases, for several reasons, including:

1) Torture doesn't work;
2) It inflicts irreparable harm upon both the interrogator and the detainee;
3) It inflicts irreparable harm upon the state;
4) It creates more enemies;
5) It violates international treaties;
6) In the case of the "Ticking Time Bomb," allowing torture under "special circumstances" will lead to torture becoming routine.

His overarching argument is that a complete prohibition on torture is tied up in the very identity of a liberal democracy. The seven pages, however, are mostly used refuting every major argument for the use of torture. It's an interesting part of the book, if only to watch Ignatieff take pro-torture arguments seriously before destroying them.

#22 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 03:31 AM:

Caroline @1:

people who don't understand that being civil to prisoners, even if they're vile evil terrorists, might get you results torture won't get you are just one example of a recurring subtype in American postwar politics. Again and again you get people convinced that George Marshall or Eisenhower or Kennedy or even Richard bloody Nixon are sekrit communist agents because they treat the USSR with borderline civility, or do not go along with the more loony plans to end the Korean War by a-bombing China or whatever.

In short, there are frightfully many people, even people in high places who understand anything but an out and out offence all the time as "appeasement" or even "treason". Even when it's actually detrimental to America. It's that, as much as the desire to inflict pain or take revenge or get the right talking points fromy our prisoners that's driving a lot of this, IMO.

#23 ::: jayskew ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 05:34 AM:

#21: These are the people you're talking about:

#24 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 11:19 AM:

I believe the only way that you are going to be in a situation where you know that the guy you're torturing knows where the bomb is and you know when the bomb will go off but do not yourself know where the bomb is will be if you are Batman and the guy you're torturing is The Riddler.

#25 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 12:37 PM:

You callin' Batman some kind of a idiot?

#26 ::: a person ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 12:44 PM:

I can't believe it has to be explained to Americans in this day and age that torture is wrong. Sad state of affairs.

#27 ::: Wakboth ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 02:53 PM:

About the reasons for torture... I don't think the "sadism and/or revenge" explanation covers all bases.

One powerful use of torture is having it as a threat to people - your own citizens or foreigners - who might be troublesome. It's an instrument of terror, masquerading as an instrument of interrogation.

#28 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 03:03 PM:

Sure, torture will almost always get wrong information and should never be used as a routine procedure, and it's clearly a very bad idea to let people who for all practical purposes aren't accountable to anyone decide whom to arrest or torture.

But I simply can't accept the idea that torture never gets correct information, because I know of a case where the threat of torture did get that. A couple of years ago, a suspected kidnapper in Germany was threathened with torture in order to make him say where he had hidden the kidnapped boy. He then admitted that he had killed the boy, had said where the corpse was hidden. The corpse was found at the place he described, so one can't really say that threats of torture never get correct information. (The police had believed that the boy might still alive, but might die in his hideout if he wasn't found soon.)

However, that was an ordinary criminal who wanted to get money to pay for a comfortable live, not a fanatic willing to endure hardships for a cause. (Not to mention that most people arrested as "terrorists" by the US and some other government are neither.)

#29 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 03:17 PM:

Sure, torture can get truthful information. Mixed in with untruthful information in a way where it is impossible to tell the difference. And if the victim gives truthful information that the torturer doesn't believe, he'll be further tortured until he gives untruthful information -- and from that point on he won't remember what the truth was and couldn't tell you if he wanted to.

There's no utilitarian argument here.

#30 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 04:37 PM:

Just because a broken watch is right twice a day is no justification for using it to tell the time. Even if once in 100 times torture produces useful information, you've got those pesky 99 other times where you went digging for WMDs in the desert, or sent the bomb-sniffing dogs to the wrong building and so on.

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2007, 04:59 PM:

One of the proofs that Ashley Montague used in his Witchcraft to prove the existence of centuries-long, continent-spanning witchcraft cults that were genuinely meeting with the devil, sacrificing babies, and so on, was that the confessions of proven witches from greatly diverse times and places resembled each other so closely.

He did not stop to consider that the reason why this was so was because the torturers were all using the same manual and reading from the same script.

Did they actually, from time to time, catch some lad who was out in the fields buggering goats? They may well have. That doesn't make torture any sort of useful tool. Nor can we tell now which lads those lads were, as opposed to the ones who merely confessed to buggering goats to make the waterboarding stop.

Again, in a torture situation the victim doesn't tell the truth, he tells the first thing that pops into his head.

#32 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2007, 05:36 AM:

Chris #15
Well, if our enemies are as smart as Princess Leia, we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we? We'd already be blowed up what-good!

Ethan #24
No, not calling Batman an idiot. Consider:

"What have you done this time Riddler?"
"I've set a bomb, it's already ticking Heee heee heeeeee!"
"Where's the bomb Riddler?"
"Hee hee heee"
*commence waterboarding*

#33 ::: Christian Severin ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2007, 11:37 AM:

Re #27 & the German kidnapping case:

A short recap, just for comparison:
Magnus Gäfgen killed a bankers son, hid the body and demanded of the victim's family a ransom of EUR 1 Mio. The police followed him after he got the money in hopes of finding the boy's whereabouts, but in vain. When Gäfgen booked a flight the next day, they took him into custody. Gäfgen freely admitted to the kidnapping, but refused to disclose where he hid the victim. Fearing for the boy's life, the Chief of Police Wolfgang Daschner ordered a subaltern to threaten Gäfgen with torture (something along the lines of "pain you've never felt before") and, being a dutyful public servant, made a remark in the case file to that effect, knowing full well that this might cost him his job.

Gäfgen broke at once, admitted to the killing and led the police to the body. Daschner was removed from active duty, transferred and, two years later, sentenced to a EUR 10,800 fine.

The court's verdict basically said:
"What you did was wrong, and it will always be wrong. Nothing justifies torture, and besides, there were other means you could have used. Thus, you are guilty.
However, you were in a desperate situation and had the best of intentions, and you did not try to hide the fact that you overstepped your legal bounds, so we give you just about the lowest possible sentence and a stern talking-to."

If some German Jack Bauer pulls another stunt like this, I doubt he will find the courts to be this lenient a second time...

So what we have here is a narcissistic perp who knows that his game is over and that he has nothing to gain by holding out except for a few years extra time. If his victim would still have been alive by the time he was interrogated, he probably would have disclosed the hiding place at once to win a few points in court. As it was, he tried to remain a kidnapper, the center of a whole lot of frantic attention, for as long as possible, to keep his value high, so to speak. As a murderer, he all of a sudden becomes much less interesting.

So the one reason he held out long enough to be threatened with torture is also the one reason torture (or the threat thereof) would have been pointless in the first place.

Basically, it's like the terrorist saying: "Sheesh, it's not a bomb anyway, it's just a box with some wires and grandma's old alarm clock! It was a joke, OK? No need to come at me with the pliers, OK? Come on, I'll show you where it is. Sheesh..."
Doesn't really sound like a case for torture, does it?

#34 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2007, 03:07 PM:

Gäfgen broke at once, admitted to the killing and led the police to the body. Daschner was removed from active duty, transferred and, two years later, sentenced to a EUR 10,800 fine.

The court's verdict basically said:
"What you did was wrong, and it will always be wrong. Nothing justifies torture, and besides, there were other means you could have used. Thus, you are guilty.

However, you were in a desperate situation and had the best of intentions, and you did not try to hide the fact that you overstepped your legal bounds, so we give you just about the lowest possible sentence and a stern talking-to."

From what I understand, (according to my first year criminal law class, taught by a German who wrote comparing US and German system) the German legal system has a greater emphasis on fines, and a lesser emphasis on imprisonment, than the US system. So getting off with a fine is not as great of an act of lenience as one might think it was if the same punishment was given in a US court.

#35 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2007, 03:19 PM:

According to, Hillary was apparently on board with the "ticking time bomb scenario" crowd at one point.


She definitely doesn't sound like she's enthusiastic about torture, just like she suspects that it might work and be worth it in extraordinary circumstances. But I was still pretty dismayed to see this.

#36 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2007, 08:32 AM:

Pyre # 9 --
-- Thank you -- I had to read Charlie's post several times to be sure I was parsing it properly...

Connie H # 6 --

That is the same argument I give to anybody who proclaims the ticking time bomb justifies torture.

All the suspect has to do (assuming that the suspect actually knows anything about the "bomb" at all) is to misdirect long enough / often enough until the bomb goes off.

Every time a "location" is given it has to be verified. Every time it is shown false the interrogation has to be restarted. If they keep interrogation going even after a location is given, you generate even more false positives.

There is also the problem that you run into if you have the *wrong* suspect, then *all* your leas are false positives.

This is the really telling argument against torture -- it does not work to provide timely and accurate information.

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2007, 10:50 AM:

The Beeb has an interesting article on forced confessions in Japan.

Scary reading.

#38 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2007, 10:52 AM:

Ursula @ 33, Daschner could have got five years in prison for what he did. He got mitigating circumstances for being at his wit's end, and for enabling his own persecution by carefully documenting what he did.

He has no criminal record and can continue to work in the police, though not in his previous position. The latter is the part I'm uneasy about. Threatening torture for lack of better ideas is not a recommendation for a policeman.

#39 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2007, 01:05 PM:

Abi # 37 --

At least 10 years ago I heard that estimate of conviction from arrest in Japan (99%), and saying to myself "there's something wrong here."

Either the figures were being royally fudged, or the police really were superhuman in their detective abilities, or they were playing fast and loose with the actuality of real guilt on the part of the arrested party.

I had suspected a combination of the first and third.

The article mentions a new wrinkle of having lay persons sit on the bench as adjuncts in some trials. I really don't think that will change much in a culture with the kind of ingrained respect for "authority" / "seniority" that I have seen in the small number of Japanese citizens I've known.

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