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Why the CIA torture techniques aren't a reliable way of extracting information

Far from getting reliable information, torture is a gruelling process that yields few results - and harm for both victim and perpetrator.

If Ant and Dec had read the “torture memos” released by Barack Obama in 2009, they might not find I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! quite so funny. Food and sleep deprivation are standard fare for the CIA but one of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” under consideration was to place a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist “in a cramped confinement box with an insect”. Abu Zubaydah was believed to have a fear of insects. Being at close quarters with one was supposed to be a route to “breaking” him.

That CIA torture techniques are also employed as entertainment on prime-time television is ironic: many of the CIA’s best ideas come from watching TV. Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver has said that staff at Guantanamo Bay watched 24 on cable while at the base, for instance – and that its maverick hero, Jack Bauer, “gave people lots of ideas”.

You could be forgiven for thinking that modern torture methods were rooted in a scientific understanding of stress. Sadly, though, the opposite is true: science says torture is counterproductive. Under extreme stress, the mind and body cave in, rendering any utterance unreliable.

We know this thanks to the detective work of Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist at Trinity College, Dublin. His first encounter with the torture memos set him on a path that has led to the publication of a new book: Why Torture Doesn’t Work. It is a synthesis of all the available scientific evidence on the effects of torture and stress. His conclusion? Torture will give you a confession, if that’s what you want. It will not yield reliable, useful information. The work could hardly be more timely. In the wake of the Paris attacks, there is bound to be heightened pressure to force information out of captured terror suspects. The scientific evidence suggests that, as well as being morally bankrupt, this is misguided. Those who study the brain under stress know that it will not help save lives.

What we do not study enough is how to question suspects in a reliable, replicable, humane fashion. However, the studies we do have suggest that skilled interrogators can use language as a tool to get detainees speaking freely about their motivations, memories and experiences. One study, performed in 1993, showed that upwards of 95 per cent of people in police custody will answer questions, given the space to do so. “Suppressing disclosure about the self is remarkably difficult and the phenomenon has deep roots in our own neurobiology,” O’Mara says. Prolonged effort at self-monitoring requires “enormous levels of concentration”.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of O’Mara’s work is the growing appreciation that torture has a detrimental effect on the torturer and anyone watching. “Subjecting a fellow human being to torture is stressful for all but the most psychopathic,” he says. American soldiers who tortured and abused prisoners in Iraq returned home with “intense, enduring and disabling guilt”. Suicide was not an uncommon end point.

Experiments have shown that witnessing distress brings out brain states that mirror those in the victim. Natural empathy has to be repressed in order to avoid sympathetic pain. “Doing so must come with some considerable psychological cost,” O’Mara says. According to the psychologists Mark Costanzo and Ellen Gerrity, the result is “anxiety . . . and impaired cognitive and social functioning”. And you thought Ant and Dec were harmless.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.