7.25.2006

Refuting a Defense of Torture: Saving Lives

A couple of recurring arguements are made to defend the practice of torture, one of which is that if it will save lives. Such a discussion often goes like this:

"So if some guy knows about an attack, and torture will get him to talk, it will save lives. So torture is OK then."

The fallacy of that point is it rarely is the case that the government knows exactly who knows of an impending attack. How is it that you are going to know the guy sitting in front of you has the information to save lives? These terrorist cells practice compartmentalization of information, so only a few will know enough details to tip off authorities. How could someone tell if they have that guy in custody? Of course, they won't.

So what are the options then? An interrogator could torture every person who hits the radar screen of suspicion. You know, just in case. And the whole time tell himself that he is saving lives. Another option is to choose someone who seems like a leader, and torture that guy until something good comes out. Of course, such things tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies.

This entire point of view is supported by the belief that people tell the truth under physical duress. How about that they will tell you anything to get the pain to stop? That seems more likely.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Christine,

I'm currently deployed to Iraq on a Tactical Human Intelligence Team.

I'm going out on a limb to post this.

You say it's a fallacy "that the government knows exactly who knows of an impending attack."

Not so here in the real world of counterinsurgency operations. Sometimes we do know. Sometimes we prevent attacks. How do you think this happens? It isn't by accident.

Compartmentalization? Well, of course. But people in areas always see things. In the tribal system, there are only so many degrees of separation. You can crack it.

You said, "This entire point of view is supported by the belief that people tell the truth under physical duress."

I haven't seen anyone under physical duress, but I have seen people under mental duress, due to worrying about their loved ones, being caught red-handed and looking at long prison time, nervous personalities, etc. The truth comes out quicker with them. Without arguing for torture (let me be clear...all training, regulations, and most importantly my conscience, would prohibit me from ever, ever coming close to it, as it would with anyone else I know in my field), in theory why wouldn't physical duress do the same? It isn't always about getting the truth on a silver platter, but getting corroboration by asking questions the answers to which you already know (too much operational security consideration to get into more detail here).

What did you do for the CIA? Were you a field agent on the HUMINT side? Are you a school trained interrogator? You should know this.

I agree 100% with your refutation of torture. However, too much of the logic you use doesn't ring true to me...with what I know about how counterinsurgency operations flesh out here on the ground, tactically.

You are oversimplifying and doing the argument a disservice.

Econo-Girl said...

Thank you for your input. It is because I am not an expert that this blog is meant to be a dialog. I have deliberately left out the definition of torture in an effort to reach a common understanding among differing views.

You claim I am oversimplifying and given your input, it is a valid claim. You must also admit that your circumstances are not the norm, and part of what I am doing is counteracting the push in the U.S. to start torture with criminal suspects.

Somehow, the idea of torture has become acceptable to the U.S. public. I want to address that.

One thing this gave me was a view on the breadth of perspectives within the U.S. Government. Thank you again for your input, and please contribute again if you can.

Fleming Rutledge said...

Thank you so much, more than I can say, for sacrificing your career for the sake of all humanity. I am working full time as best I can to oppose our government policies regarding torture, illegal detention, secret detention centers, etc. God bless you, especially for understanding that belief and action must cohere.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I'd like to say that I really appreciate your comment. I can't agree with one aspect of it, though, expressed here:

> I haven't seen anyone under physical duress, but I have seen people under mental duress, [...] The truth comes out quicker with them. Without arguing for torture [...] in theory why wouldn't physical duress do the same?

Now, I'm not educated in any of these matters, but isn't it the case that under duress, people relatively often are coerced to give out false information?
There are several studies showing how easy it is even for strangers to make people believe in false memories (e.g. suggesting that something happened in your childhood). These experiments were usually conducted under normal, relaxed conditions. I'd think that under stress (especially duress), people are even more suggestible.

Here is one article about innocent people confessing crimes when questioned under duress:
http://www.sciammind.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=000635C8-590A-128A-982D83414B7F0000

In particular, take note this: "In general, professional lie catchers, such as police detectives, psychiatrists, customs inspectors and polygraph examiners, exhibit accuracy rates in the 45 to 60 percent range, with a mean of 54 percent."
This is a number observed in several other studies, too. Another article available online, "The Naked Face", discusses the ability of people to read other people's emotions and facial expressions. It mentions a test where people were asked to judge whether a videotaped statement was truthful or not: "[...] the test was given to policemen, customs officers, judges, trial lawyers, and psychotherapists, as well as to officers from the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the D.E.A., and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms-- people one would have thought would be good at spotting lies. On average, they score fifty per cent"

Considering the disastrous effect that false confessions and coerced statements may have on one's life, especially in cases as serious as interrogations on terrorism, how can you support such interrogation styles given the low reliability? Don't you think the price that the wrongly convicted people pay is too high justify such procedures?
(Many institutions in the U.S. have taken measures and modified the interrogation settings and procedures to produce more reliable results. Increasing duress isn't one of those measures.)

Anonymous said...

Fleming, thanks for your comments. Individual interrogations don’t stand alone. You are corroborating things you already know. You are looking at kinesic indicators. You ask questions the answers to which you already have, to establish a baseline of behavior. The more feelings of stress the interviewee has, the less able they are to hide their kinesic behavior. Did this study look at multiple interrogations of the same suspect over time, where interrogators take into account intelligence from multiple other sources? Did it study interrogations in the context of counter-insurgency operations overseas and in Iraq, where you have caught multiple people and are playing them against each other? Where the detainee has a real worry that his family will be killed by his own group of insurgents because the insurgents think the detainee is cooperating? Interrogators don’t always know when a person is telling the truth as much as knowing when a person is telling a lie. This is the start.

Fleming and Econo-girl, a critical piece that you must understand is that our goal is not to have a detainee sign a confession, or put them away in jail. No one has less of a vested interest in suborning deception in detainees than we do. Our goal is to get actionable intelligence. This is more important to me than what happens, ultimately, to the detainee. Our job is not to validate that the detainee should be in custody. This is very different from law enforcement.

It might be helpful to invite a member of the Army Judge Advocate General Corp into this discussion who has operational experience in Afghanistan or Iraq.

It sounds like the study to which you are referring looked at this issue from within the context of law enforcement. I have no experience in law enforcement. All my comments are addressing the issue from within the context of counter-insurgency, which is where my expertise lies.

Your study said, “. It mentions a test where people were asked to judge whether a videotaped statement was truthful or not… the test was given to policemen, customs officers, judges, trial lawyers, and psychotherapists, as well as to officers from the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the D.E.A., and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms-- people one would have thought would be good at spotting lies. On average, they score fifty per cent”

Well, I might have scored fifty percent too, just looking at a videotape of one statement. But if I have multiple interrogations of the suspect over a period of time, corroborating information, sworn statements from the capturing unit indicating all circumstances of capture, developing a baseline of kinesic indicators, understanding the psychology of the person, the percentage will be considerably higher. This particular study misses the point.

Econo-Girl said...

Excellent points. But should that duress be severe physical pain?

Intel Guy said...

econo-girl,

No, it shouldn't be severe physical pain. That is morally wrong. However, in theory, I can understand how the _threat_ of severe physical pain would be an inducement to truth telling. It would certainly make me think twice about lying. Would it not do the same for you?

But regardless, I know of nobody in my field who thinks physical duress is morally acceptable.

I'm not sure how the assertion that physical torture on the part of the United States is widespread is supported.

FYI, I know others post anonymously, so I've created a generic identity for myself to distinguish my posts from others.

Feel free to ask me anything you like. I will not answer if there are operational security issues, but I will answer truthfully.

Econo-Girl said...

Thank you for your input. It is most valuable.

I know that, overwhelmingly, most people in the IC are opposed to torture, taking into consideration that we have not attempted to define it here.

In terms of whether the threat of severe physical pain would induce me to tell the truth, I think it would be more likely to get me to say what I think they want to hear.

Anonymous said...

Intel Guy,

That study WAS related to police interrogations--I know because I teach a block of instruction that briefly includes that study at USAICS. The reason people in lie-detecting professions score so poorly has to do largely with their uninformed and cocksure attitudes regarding their own abilities.

Your description of the uses of Reid techniques in intelligence interrogations is right on--the more times you talk to a guy, the better your assessment of his baseline behavior, and the more accurate and thoughtful the interrrogator is about deviations from that behavior, the better an assessment of his truthfulness will be.

I must, however, caveat your analysis with this: deception indicators are not actually indicatord of deception, per se, rather they are indications of stress. Thus the close analysis of the circumstances under which those indicators show themselves is of paramount importance in determining whether the stress the interrogator is seeing is stress-related or deception-related.

One conclusion that the interrogator should glean from this (admittedly perfunctory) analysis is that in order to do a good assessment of a detainee's truthfulness, the many other stressors in the detainee's life should be minimized to whatever extent possible. This means Fear Down, P & E Up and Emotional Love need to be emphasized in the early stages of interrogation--the fewer competing stressors there are on the detainee, the better the baseline indicators will be.

Intel Guy said...

Roger that, Anonymous. I wouldn't get too much more into this stuff, for OPSEC reasons. I might have seen you at USAICS. My senior FAC at the E schoolhouse was the crazy Korean.

Anonymous said...

Intel Guy, there's of course a lot I've left out. None of this stuff is classified, but it's obviously still useful for the enemy to know our tactics. Alas, I've seen their counter-interrogation manuals and they are pretty good.