Torture Is a Sign of Incompetence

I am not primarily interested in utilitarian arguments about torture. My arguments on the subject have tended to be moral and legal. And, I do not believe that either would be altered by the discovery that torture was an effective means of interrogating prisoners.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of well-intentioned utilitarians out there, and some may be concerned that were it to stop torturing its prisoners the CIA might somehow miss out on a valuable interrogation technique. Well, rest easy: The current issue of The Atlantic has an article by Stephen Budiansky that eloquently confirms that being nice is a much more effective means of Truth Extraction. But we knew that.

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9 Responses to Torture Is a Sign of Incompetence

  1. jack lake says:

    Sadly enough, torture can payoff well, but one has to be skilled at it. The recent orgy of “torture doesn’t help” ignores centuries of experience. Torture is morally wrong nevertheless.

    A woman squeezing a prisoner’s balls is incompetence at its best. She watched too much television or has too many former South American Junta friends.

  2. pike says:

    How, pray tell, does one get to be skilled at it? Lots of trial and error, I presume. Pity we have to cut off all those fingers and toes before we know how to do it just right to get the answers.

    Jack, can you cite something credible that will back up your assertion? You are rebutting a reference to a study showing it ain’t so good as more, er, moral tactics to begin with. Maybe you know of some report saying “yes, science shows us torture is effective at extracting accurate information.” I doubt it.


  3. Michael Keenan says:

    The Minds Limit Today

    In Jean Amery’s, The Minds Limit, his capture and descent into torture by German Nazi’s, starts by pointing out that his torturers showed no “banality of evil” in their faces. First there is the “laugh” and then the “first blow”. The prisoner then realizes that they are “helpless”. Lost is the “trust in the world.” Certainly there is no “mutual aid in nature.” No. It is time for the “business room.” But before describing his own torture the author makes “good on a promise I gave.” Not that they where not specialists in torture, but more so his conviction that “torture was the essence of Nationalist Socialism – more accurately stated, why it was precisely in torture that the Third Reich materialized in all the density of its being.” I ask you dear citizens should we also “codify” that the detainees at Camp Xray can also be children as recently reported in the news? Not only does that sound slightly like the rule of antiman but I do believe antichild included. And if that is so then the rule practiced as such has “expressly established it as a principle.” So just what else in “essence” does go on at Camp Xray – “tricks”? Plead mercy, pray tell? Refuse Himmlers offer for a Certificate of Maturity in History I would suggest. Nay, to forsake the Constitution and be depraved of our humanity would be more painful in the end Mr Rumsfeld. Slavery to torture is all you will get. Go tell that to the Marines Mr. Rumsfeld after you have tendered your resignation.

    I am Citizen Michael John Keenan

    P.S Mr Bush has publicly denied that torture is the “being” of his party. If that we only true then the torture would have stopped by now. Rumsfeld twice tried to resign so I can only surmise that torture has Bushes blessing – directly from GOD! I gave him fair warning and now I will seek to hold him criminally liable and cupable for these crimes against humanity.

  4. Jack Lake says:

    Science? You do mean a full analysis of KGB documents? Trying to hide behide science or some bogus writings that claim that torture does not work is a sure way to help support torture. Or are you claiming that for 5000 years torture was used and nobody notice that it is not helpful?

    Take a moral stand and don’t even try to argue that your product is cheap and useful.

  5. pike says:

    “Take a moral stand and don’t even try to argue that your product is cheap and useful.”


    If I may respond bluntly–What? It’s just that your post raises so many basic questions and imparts so very little information.

    First off, here’s my moral stand, no different than ever: torture is reprehensible, whether you’ve applied the electrodes poorly or with “skill.” What’s more, it’s not justifiable by its believed utility, not even in some fanciful “the bomb is ticking” scenario. A “skilled” torturer I don’t want my daughter to meet, or my neighbor, or my enemy, for that matter.

    My “product” is “cheap and useful?” What the heck is my product? Cheap compared to what and useful in what way? I have no idea to what you are referring. And even beyond that, how am I hiding behind anything? From what? What makes you think the writings referenced are “bogus” or anything else? How does establishing that torture does not serve its alleged purpose help to support it? What?

    Why limit your time scale to just 5,000 years? I’m sure we’ve been torturing each other for far longer than that and I’m sure that the avowed purpose has been to extract information for just as long. How did the torturers not notice that it’s ineffective, you ask. It’s because that isn’t what torturing is really about. Torture is a technique for terrorizing. It’s a terrorist tactic, used to terrorize one-on-one and when it’s known to be used, it terrorizes groups. It’s quite effective at that. It’s also useful for relieving a torturer’s anger and frustration, or at least it seems so when the torturing is going on. But for extracting useful information, it’s not effective. All of the ‘science’ I’ve read reports of and that you apparently disdain, as applied to analysing the techniques and purposes and results of torture, points to that conclusion and I defy you to find a serious analysis of KGB records or any other records that holds differently. You have one? You have something more than a belief in the system? Asserting that it works does far more to justify the practice of torture than to deny it works.

    That torture works at extracting information from those unwilling to give it is a widely held belief, for sure, but it has long been recognized as a false belief. Torturers torture to make themselves feel a little less impotent than they feel otherwise, and extracting information is more the premise for the torturer’s actions than the real motivation. Note how the Abu Ghraib tortures were premised often on keeping control of prisoners instead of extracting information, or used to punish disobedience. Whichever excuse worked for the torturers at the time was plenty good for allowing it to happen.

    Educate yourself, Jack

  6. Paul Gowder says:

    Jack: you cite the KGB as evidence for the fact that torture works to get reliable information? The same KGB that (under a previous name) almost lost World War II for the Soviets from purging all the decent generals? Gee, their torture sure gave ’em reliable information there.

  7. Jack Lake says:

    That torture works “has long been recognized as a false belief” Educate me please: do you have references? Is it based on confessions of MI6, Mossad, KGB former chiefs?

  8. pike says:

    So you come back with nothing but a belief in torture, nothing to show it’s effective? Just as I thought. No answers to my questions? Not surprising.

    It would be hard to dredge up all I’ve read over the years on this, (we’d need a library, really, not just my bookshelves or Google or what, but since you seem to be interested you could start with what I could dig up in a few minutes here before moving on to the library:

    Here’s a expert: Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of “Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture,” a study for which she interviewed dozens of torturers and their victims. “Apart from being atrocious, inhumane, and against international law,” she says, “torture doesn’t yield much. It’s just not effective.” Remember, she was talking to the torturers too–the ones who presumably thought they were doing some good.

    Similarly, Dr. Ruchama Marton, coeditor of “Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel,” the founder of Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights, tells us that even the staunchest Mossad defenders of the most aggressive interrogation methods never provided details of a single case in which torture led useful information.

    The U.S. Army’s field manual for intelligence (FM34-52) notes that simple direct questioning of prisoners was 85 percent to 95 percent effective in World War II and 90 to 95 percent effective during the Vietnam War. Another source I recall but can’t grab at the moment showed that torture to get anti-American statements out of US POW’s in N. Vietnam was only about 5% effective.

    Another expert:
    ” . . . 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.” [“Tell you anything” does not mean “tell you the truth,” BTW]

    This article in Salon seems to be relying on sources I read years ago, and has many interesting points, including debunking the popular conception of torture’s apparent success for the French in Algiers, and showing how torture backfired there:

    Try the science:

    “Even under the Nazis, torture interrogation failed to break dozens of high state officials and military commanders involved in late-war plots to assassinate Hitler. According to Peter Hoffman’s History of the German Resistance: 1933-1945:[27]

    “Six months from the start of their investigations the Gestapo still had nothing like precise knowledge of the resistance movement…….This lack of information and knowledge is all the more astounding in that Himmler’s men employed every means to extract confessions…. Moreover all forms of torture were used without hesitation….”

    These are quoted in

    and that source also leads us to the “long recognized” aspect, one of many examples from the literature:
    “For a long historical comparison, examination of court records for 625 cases of torture interrogation in France, from the 1500s through the mid-1700s, showed approximate rates of error—that is, no confession on the rack, under repeated drowning, crushing of joints, and the like—in 67% to 95% of cases, depending on the province.[80]”

    Your continual citation of Mossad and KGB and what seems only to expose that you believe, without cause, that these groups have been effective at getting what they want via torture, and by implication more effective than they would have been by conventional means. I still defy you to show that believe has any support in the real world.

  9. ant says:

    An article on the changes in CIA “culture” from “no torture tolerated” to “let’s outsource ourselves some torturing.”

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