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.

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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. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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