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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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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