Just for a moment, let’s pretend that there is no moral, legal or constitutional problem with torture. Let’s also imagine a clear-cut case: a terrorist who knows where bombs are about to explode in Iraq. To stop him, it seems that a wide range of Americans would be prepared to endorse “cruel and unusual” methods. In advance of confirmation hearings for Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales last week, the Wall Street Journal argued that such scenarios must be debated, since “what’s at stake in this controversy is nothing less than the ability of U.S. forces to interrogate enemies who want to murder innocent civilians.” Alan Dershowitz, the liberal legal scholar, has argued in the past that interrogators in such a case should get a “torture warrant” from a judge. Both of these arguments rest on an assumption: that torture — defined as physical pressure during interrogation — can be used to extract useful information.
But does torture work? The question has been asked many times since Sept. 11, 2001. I’m repeating it, however, because the Gonzales hearings inspired more articles about our lax methods (“Too Nice for Our Own Good” was one headline), because similar comments may follow this week’s trial of Spec. Charles Graner, the alleged Abu Ghraib ringleader, and because I still cannot find a positive answer. I’ve heard it said that the Syrians and the Egyptians “really know how to get these things done.” I’ve heard the Israelis mentioned, without proof. I’ve heard Algeria mentioned, too, but Darius Rejali, an academic who recently trolled through French archives, found no clear examples of how torture helped the French in Algeria — and they lost that war anyway. “Liberals,” argued an article in the liberal online magazine Slate a few months ago, “have a tendency to accept, all too eagerly, the argument that torture is ineffective.” But it’s also true that “realists,” whether liberal or conservative, have a tendency to accept, all too eagerly, fictitious accounts of effective torture carried out by someone else.
By contrast, it is easy to find experienced U.S. officers who argue precisely the opposite. Meet, for example, retired Air Force Col. John Rothrock, who, as a young captain, headed a combat interrogation team in Vietnam. More than once he was faced with a ticking time-bomb scenario: a captured Vietcong guerrilla who knew of plans to kill Americans. What was done in such cases was “not nice,” he says. “But we did not physically abuse them.” Rothrock used psychology, the shock of capture and of the unexpected. Once, he let a prisoner see a wounded comrade die. Yet — as he remembers saying to the “desperate and honorable officers” who wanted him to move faster — “if I take a Bunsen burner to the guy’s genitals, he’s going to tell you just about anything,” which would be pointless. Rothrock, who is no squishy liberal, says that he doesn’t know “any professional intelligence officers of my generation who would think this is a good idea.”
Or listen to Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a military intelligence specialist who conducted interrogations in Vietnam, Panama and Iraq during Desert Storm, and who was sent by the Pentagon in 2003 — long before Abu Ghraib — to assess interrogations in Iraq. Aside from its immorality and its illegality, says Herrington, torture is simply “not a good way to get information.” In his experience, nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk with no “stress methods” at all, let alone cruel and unusual ones. Asked whether that would be true of religiously motivated fanatics, he says that the “batting average” might be lower: “perhaps six out of ten.” And if you beat up the remaining four? “They’ll just tell you anything to get you to stop.”
Worse, you’ll have the other side effects of torture. It “endangers our soldiers on the battlefield by encouraging reciprocity.” It does “damage to our country’s image” and undermines our credibility in Iraq. That, in the long run, outweighs any theoretical benefit. Herrington’s confidential Pentagon report, which he won’t discuss but which was leaked to The Post a month ago, goes farther. In that document, he warned that members of an elite military and CIA task force were abusing detainees in Iraq, that their activities could be “making gratuitous enemies” and that prisoner abuse “is counterproductive to the Coalition’s efforts to win the cooperation of the Iraqi citizenry.” Far from rescuing Americans, in other words, the use of “special methods” might help explain why the war is going so badly.
An up-to-date illustration of the colonel’s point appeared in recently released FBI documents from the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These show, among other things, that some military intelligence officers wanted to use harsher interrogation methods than the FBI did. As a result, complained one inspector, “every time the FBI established a rapport with a detainee, the military would step in and the detainee would stop being cooperative.” So much for the utility of torture.
Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.
Perhaps it’s reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of “toughness” we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well.