Why it matters whether or not torture works

Part of the debate about the CIA Torture Report is whether torture works as a means of gathering useful intelligence; scholarly work has long held that it doesn't.

A recent study, Rapport-building interrogation is more effective than torture, led by Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty from Australia's Charles Sturt University, found that "rapport-building" (making friends with the subject) produces far more actionable intelligence than torture could.

In one sense, whether torture works or it doesn't is beside the point. Torture is bad because it's inhumane and immoral, independent of its effectiveness (as Barton Gellman's pointed out, if you need the combination to a safe and you have the bank-manager tied to a chair, you can probably torture the combination out of her — but that doesn't make it right).

However, this kind of research is still noteworthy because of what it says about the leaders who greenlit torture. The idea that rapport-building is more effective than torture isn't a new one. It's been supported in the literature for a very long time.

But CIA and Bush administration leaders still wanted to torture suspects because they preferred torturing them. In some important sense, torturing people they didn't like satisfied them. Even though they knew that they would get worse intelligence through torture, they still wanted to torture, because the idea of torturing "America's enemies" was pleasing to them. It struck them as the right thing to do.

This is the reason to talk about the efficacy of torture: because it shows that the American establishment is riddled with sadism and depravity.

One former U.S. Army interrogator told PRI this week that he was able to break through to an Iraqi insurgent over a shared love of watching the TV show "24" on bootleg DVDs.

"He acknowledged that he was a big fan of Jack Bauer," he told PRI. "We made a connection there that ultimately resulted in him recanting a bunch of information that he had said in the past and actually giving us the accurate information because we had made that connection."

Delahunty notes in the study that even though rapport-building strategies, which included things like humor and expressing concern, were recognized as more effective, interrogators were still more likely to use hardball accusatory strategies when dealing with "high-value" detainees, perhaps because the nature of their crimes were considered too horrendous for buddy-buddy interviewing.

The Humane Interrogation Technique That Works Much Better Than Torture [Olga Khazan/The Atlantic]

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(Image: Marquise de Brinvilliers, public domain)