How Torture Undermines National Security

Via Patrick Appel, former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa explains how the use of torture can undermine the United States’ ability to both obtain information and recruit double agents.

A second and arguably more important goal of the FBI is to persuade some of these people, or “targets,” to change sides and share the information they have about their own governments and countries with us. It’s the real-life James Bond scenario: developing “double agents” and obtaining critical foreign intelligence in the interest of national security. The FBI uses the fact that it operates on American soil to its advantage. FBI agents, unlike their CIA counterparts, can operate openly, rather than covertly. FBI agents also do not have to worry about hostile host governments discovering their activities and disrupting their intelligence networks. This means that the FBI is in a relatively strong position to produce a steady stream of valuable intelligence that is difficult to obtain abroad.

[…]

But getting people to flip is primarily a psychological game rather than a material one. After all, the FBI is asking its targets to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty to their country—treason. Few people are willing to make this leap quickly, even in exchange for the most lucrative or attractive offer. It’s an FBI agent’s job to slowly win the target’s trust and help him rationalize his decision to switch his allegiance. In my experience as a former FBI agent who both participated in and observed successful recruitments, it’s much easier to do this when a target has, at some level, a sense of admiration and respect for the United States. A nugget of goodwill toward America offers an agent the chance to step in, gain the target’s confidence, and convince him that playing for Team USA is worth the risk.

Policies like the use of torture make it more difficult for the FBI to develop relationships based on trust. Even when torture is used on a few people and in another country, and by a different agency, it casts doubts on the U.S. government’s overall willingness to act in good faith. Targets often project the skepticism about the United States that torture fosters onto individual FBI agents, who are often the only face of the government they see. In short, torture is fundamentally at odds with the image of the United States as a country that will play by the rules, and that is how the FBI must be perceived in order to do its job.

Considering that we’ve obtained virtually no useful evidence from the use of torture, even against high value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the security/morality tradeoff here doesn’t even exist: On both moral and utilitarian calculations, there’s simply no justification for the use of torture.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, US Politics,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    You mean Dick and Liz aren’t telling the truth!? Who knew…

  2. billindc says:

    Well, there is one justification…it made political bureaucrats with multiple deferments feel macho. And that’s in the Federalist Papers somewhere, isn’t it?

  3. Furhead says:

    There are other utilitarian reasons. Does anybody think an enemy will surrender peacefully to a country that is going to torture him?

    Unfortunately, the damage is already done. A few words by Obama isn’t going to change people’s opinion of how the United States operates. We no longer appear to do the right thing – we invade other countries that have done nothing to us, and we torture prisoners of war. That’s in the history books now.

  4. Triumph says:

    Considering that we’ve obtained virtually no useful evidence from the use of torture

    This is a lie. Lets look at the facts: under the weak leadership of Clinton, we didn’t torture and Clinton destroyed the military.

    After 9-11 we started taking the battle to the evil ones. Since we started torturing, there has not been another 9-11.

    This is proof that it works.

    When Obama took over, he stops torturing. Obama weakened our resolve and by May we see a terrorist attack us in Kansas.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    There are numerous arguments that we did obtain useful evidence. If in fact we did how does that change the argument against enhanced techniques?

    Seriously, this is getting so out of control. Just last week the press breathlessly announced we had threatened to kill family members of these bad guys. Of course they threaten to wipe out all of us on a regular basis but that’s okay.

    These are not prisoners of war. That is settled. These are terrorists who are without those legal protections.

    Face it or not this a debatable issue still. Until full disclosure of facts we cannot even debate properly.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    These are not prisoners of war. That is settled. These are terrorists who are without those legal protections.

    Irrelevant. The Convention Against Torture, which was signed by President Reagan and ratified by the Senate, and has operating legislation in existence, forbids torturing anyone. It is illegal under the laws of the United States, whether someone is a prisoner of war or not.

    (They are covered by the Geneva Conventions, too, by the way, but the CAT makes that less relevant.)

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    There are numerous arguments that we did obtain useful evidence.

    But, alas, no evidence to support those arguments.

    If in fact we did how does that change the argument against enhanced techniques?

    Then, on a utilitarian calculus, you have to weigh that vs the loss of useful intelligence as well as the amount of non-useful intelligence gained as well as the utilitarian costs of undermining the rule of law and losing the respect of most nations. You also have to take into account the increased efficacy of terrorist recruitment as a consequence of brutal behavior by the United States.

    Of course, that doesn’t affect the legal or moral arguments.

  8. peterh says:

    I am almost certain, that on the anniversary next Friday, we will have every Rudy, Dick and Sean extolling the virtues of torture and how there has not been a repeat of 911 on every available platform from the Today show to the most obnoxious syndicated radio show…..and there will be very little in the way of a counter point offered to the viewer/listener……with maybe msnbc being the lone exception.

    The fact that one could consider this topic as even debatable is testament to how far down the GOP has brought us……

  9. Furhead says:

    These are terrorists who are without those legal protections.

    You can say that until you’re blue in the face, but the fact is: we tortured SUSPECTS.

    Plus, Alex is correct that even if they were proven to be terrorists, they indeed have legal protections.

  10. steve says:

    Gotta love that “kept us safe” meme. We have an open border with Mexico and 12 million illegal immigrants. Terrorists can cross whenever they want. The TSA has conceded that their surveillance can stop only the stupid terrorists.

    Steve

  11. floyd says:

    Clever drawing!
    Look closely and try to determine if the subject is facing toward or away from you.
    Are the handcuffs behind his back or in front of him?
    Both?
    This just illustrates how multiple viewers see things differently?

  12. Spoker says:

    Last night at my daughters swimming practice I saw a mother take away the second half of a super sized candy bar from her 9 year old son, telling him he could have it back after dinner. He started screaming and yelling that she could not do that, he bought is with his allowance. he went on to say “You can’t torture me this way. That is my candy bar.”

    At least in the boys case there was some logic to his argument and he did not intend to hurt innocent bystanders except with his screaming and crying.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    At least in the boys case there was some logic to his argument and he did not intend to hurt innocent bystanders except with his screaming and crying.

    Are you implying that it’s ok to torture people who hurt, or intend to hurt, innocent bystanders?

  14. anjin-san says:

    These are not prisoners of war. That is settled. These are terrorists who are without those legal protections.

    We are either about something, or we are not. What are you about Steve… the concept that might makes right? The ends justify the means? Much of the suffering in human history has resulted from these concepts.

    I think we are about the rule of law, and the idea that torture is wrong. Period. Maybe a terrorist will slip through and kill me, but he will not be able to destroy what I believe in, the American ideals that you seem eager to simply give away. While I have no wish to be blown up, one day I will die, regardless. But when I am gone, at least I will have stood for something more than “keep me safe, no matter the cost”.

    You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.

    Vince Lombardi

  15. mannning says:

    It is one thing to “forbid torture” legislatively and by command. It is another thing entirely to actually stop it, or even be able to stop it, in deadly situations.

    Ask combat-experienced officers about it sometime. Ask them if they had ever had to “take a walk” while a couple of hard-faced noncoms and perhaps an interpreter “interrogated” a captured enemy. If the officer refused to take that walk, he was in deep trouble, even unto being fragged.

    Do our enemies know about this? Even if they had no proof, they inferred it, and now it is published fact that we have employed harsh interrogation techniques. So, who is kidding us about maintaining a lily-white posture for terrorist and world consumption?

    The very idea of our White Knights riding into courtly battle with terrorists, who have no reason to honor the Geneva Conventions, gets good men killed or horribly wounded. Those noncoms took this lesson to heart, perhaps because they have seen first-hand their men maimed and killed by terrorists.

    Morality and obedience to prohibitions skate on very thin ice in such combat, no matter how much we abhor torture as a people from our easychairs and with our purist though processes. Seeing the elephant does indeed change men.

  16. Considering that we’ve obtained virtually no useful evidence from the use of torture…

    Virtually. Nice. Weak and somewhat dishonest in a splitting hairs to spin it sort of way. Can you say it without the adjectival qualifier? Oh, and then there’s the noun. It wasn’t evidence so much as information the interrogators were after — information that could be used to fight back by finding those responsible and killing them to prevent any further acts of terror. Note, kill them, not arrest them. KSM wasn’t being waterboarded to collect evidence to be used against him in a trial. Apparently you want to fight terrorism according to procedural legalisms. Good luck with that.

  17. Davebo says:

    Welcome to the modern Libertarian party!

    Taxes? ANATHEMA!!!!!!!!

    Torture? Meh…

  18. davod says:

    “Irrelevant. The Convention Against Torture, which was signed by President Reagan and ratified by the Senate, and has operating legislation in existence, forbids torturing anyone. It is illegal under the laws of the United States, whether someone is a prisoner of war or not.”

    A. They are not covered by the edition of the Geneva Convention ratified by the US.

    B. Torture:

    “T]orture is defined as “an extreme form of cruel and inhuman treatment and does not include lesser forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. . . . ” 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(2). Moreover, as has been explained by the Third Circuit, CAT requires “a showing of specific intent before the Court can make a finding that a petitioner will be tortured.” Pierre v. Attorney General, 528 F.3d 180, 189 (3d Cir. 2008) (en banc); see 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(5) (requiring that the act “be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering”); Auguste v. Ridge, 395 F.3d 123, 139 (3d Cir. 2005) (“This is a ‘specific intent’ requirement and not a ‘general intent’ requirement” [citations omitted.] An applicant for CAT protection therefore must establish that “his prospective torturer will have the motive or purpose” to torture him. Pierre, 528 F.3d at 189; Auguste, 395 F.3d at 153-54 (“The mere fact that the Haitian authorities have knowledge that severe pain and suffering may result by placing detainees in these conditions does not support a finding that the Haitian authorities intend to inflict severe pain and suffering. The difference goes to the heart of the distinction between general and specific intent.”) [my bold italics and brackets]. . . .”