Torture — it’s ok if it works

I am no champion of human rights and if torture did indeed work, more power to the interrogator.


Shahzeb Shaikha May 08, 2014
The writer is an Express Tribune staffer who has a master’s degree in Security and Intelligence Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He tweets @shahzebshaikha

Things should be said as they are; they should not be sugar-coated through bureaucratic jargon. That’s exactly what the US government did when it came to torturing detainees at infamous CIA black sites established across the world following the 9/11 attacks.

Torture as a state policy was spearheaded by then US vice-president Dick Cheney and the legal definition as to what constituted torture was neatly manipulated by the then Deputy Assistant US Attorney General, John Yoo, at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. This policy was hinted at by Cheney during the NBC’s “Meet the Press” interview, where he mentioned “spending time in the shadows” and “working on the dark side”; that “a lot of what will need to be done will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies”. The gloves had come off; that any and all means necessary would be used to achieve success.

Through leaks of the 6,300 page classified report of the US Senate Intelligence Committee on the effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation methods, we now know that much of the intelligence headway achieved by the CIA and the rest of the US intelligence community were made through non-coercive measures and effective tradecraft.

Out of the several torture techniques employed, waterboarding fared the most, in which the detainee was placed in an inclined position with their face covered and water poured over it, essentially creating a sensational drowning effect. The self-proclaimed 9/11 hijacker Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is said to be waterboarded more than 300 times while Abu Zubeida, according to a US official, 83 times. Others included dunking terror suspects in tanks of ice water, sleep deprivation and extended periods of being subjected to stress positions.

Due credit goes to national security agencies who, with sophistication, have figured ways to deliver severe pain and test the limits of the human body while ensuring that it survives extreme torture. I am no champion of human rights and if torture did indeed work, more power to the interrogator. But research has been done as far as the ability of humans to recall details from memory is concerned, and employing coercive measures to extract it further compromises this ability. An article titled “The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony” points out that we never retell a story or recount events without a purpose and when we do, it is always tailored to a particular listener. Particularly under duress, it has the potential of creating false memories, which is why interrogation is an art that requires a particular skill: patience. At the end of it, cooperation is what is desired, not just compliance.

But in all of this, there are lessons to be learned. First, the perseverance of US Senator Dianne Feinstein — chair of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — who continues to champion the cause of transparency despite facing stiff resistance from the intelligence community. She has been at loggerheads with the CIA to ensure that enhanced interrogation techniques are never again employed or considered. Feinstein’s mission sets an ultimate precedent: that the people’s representative should maintain oversight of all things government, regardless of how sensitive that information might be to national security.

As for Pakistan, we should — for our own purposes — learn from the CIA’s experience that employing torture is by no means an effective method to obtain intelligence. As former FBI agent Ali Soufyan pointed out, most of the intelligence obtained from Zubeida was before he was interrogated (and subsequently waterboarded) by the CIA. It is often instinctive to think that someone would divulge sensitive information — while being tortured — to make the pain stop. But as has been the case, many national security detainees gave out misleading information, not particularly to conceal any ‘real’ information, but primarily to stop the torture. If the intent, however, is to inflict suffering on a detainee to exact revenge for his involvement in an act of terror, that is different matter entirely — clandestinely speaking.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2014.

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COMMENTS (3)

Feroz Merchant | 7 years ago | Reply

@Marre: Consider reading the article again while actually using the muscle between your ears and you may understand the authors intent.

Nadir | 7 years ago | Reply

Slow clap. Yep, torture is fine if it "works", after all the person who is getting tortured doesnt get a say in it, so the people conducting torture decide whether it works or not. Plus, no one ever thinks they would ever be the victim. Its something that happens to "others".

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