The Neuroscience of “Enhanced Interrogation”

Wired reports that studies show that “enhanced interrogation”, far from being a reliable source of information, can actually make someone less of an intelligence asset because the stress involved changes the biochemistry of the brain:

“There is a vast literature on the effects of extreme stress on motivation, mood and memory, using both animals and humans,” writes Shane O’Mara, a stress researcher at Ireland’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. “These techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”

[…]

A report published by the Intelligence Science Board in 2007 found that no research existed to support the use of enhanced interrogation. And O’Mara’s review, published Monday in Trends in Cognitive Science, describes a wealth of science that supports ending the practice.

O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read.

What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.

What’s frustrating about the torture debate to me is that all of the professionals who are experts in the field are routinely ignored by the pro-“enhanced interrogation” side of the debate. Just so we’re clear, in addition to the biochemical evidence above, here’s a few posts and articles that we’ve seen over the past few months:

  • We’ve seen that an Air Force officer with counterterrorism experience and experience interrogating al-Qaeda members opposes enhanced interrogation on the grounds that it doesn’t gather effective intelligence.
  • We’ve had military psychologists who work on the SERE program, which trains soldiers to resist “enhanced interrogation,” claim that the use of same on detainees to be counterproductive.
  • We’ve seen an FBI counterintelligence agent who specialize in counterterrorism and also had experience interrogating al-Qaeda members find no evidence of the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation.”
  • We’ve seen a Marine Corps interrogator point out the uselessness of such techniques even if there’s a “ticking time bomb” scenario.

Against this, we mostly have the claims of Dick Cheney who says that the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report demonstrates that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” enabled the United States to gain significant amounts of intelligence, particularly from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. The problem is, of course, is that this claim doesn’t survive scrutiny. Most of Cheney’s claims involve intelligence that was already known prior to KSMs capture, or organizational information that was obtained from KSM’s computer and paper files–not his actual interrogation. Indeed, most of what KSM said under “enhanced interrogation” was useless. It wasn’t until it stopped and the traditional American methods of interrogation employed instead that he actually provided anything of value.

The pro-“enhanced interrogation” side of the house loves to throw out hypotheticals and vague claims that these techniques are valuable, but the evidence doesn’t bear this claim out. These techniques do not provide any signficant or usable intelligence; they make useless people who might be turned into valuable intelligence assets, as noted above; they provide a powerful rallying cry for the recruitment of people into our enemies’ cause; they make it less likely that our enemies will surrender to our troops, which exposes them to unnecessary risk of harm; they make it more likely that our soldiers, when captured, will be tortured; they make it harder to recruit counterintelligence assets; they force us to waste time and resources in following false leads and finally, they undermine the moral authority of the United States.

What’s the upside?

(cross-posted to Heretical Ideas)

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Military Affairs, National Security, Science & Technology, Terrorism,
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. davod says:

    I read the other day that the FBI is considering seeking approval to use techniques not approved in the Army manual. I suppose this means they are enhanced.

    I know this is peanuts compared to enhanced interrogations, but I would be interested to know what the experts say about the use of lie detectors.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Davod,

    The FBI had a task force investigation whether techniques outside the Army Field Manual were needed to conduct interrogations. They concluded that no such techniques were needed.

    As for lie detectors, they’re generally not very reliable.

  3. Your inability to find anyone who disagrees with you is almost Kaelian.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    If you have evidence that the use of these techniques has led to signficant intelligence gains that outweigh the FBI and military assessment of the costs, you are more then welcome to provide it.

  5. Barry says:

    Alex: “Against this, we mostly have the claims of Dick Cheney who says that the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report demonstrates that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” enabled the United States to gain significant amounts of intelligence, particularly from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. The problem is, of course, is that this claim doesn’t survive scrutiny. Most of Cheney’s claims involve intelligence that was already known prior to KSMs capture, or organizational information that was obtained from KSM’s computer and paper files—not his actual interrogation. Indeed, most of what KSM said under “enhanced interrogation” was useless. It wasn’t until it stopped and the traditional American methods of interrogation employed instead that he actually provided anything of value.”

    Somebody pointed out that, if there were cases where good information was produced from torture which was unavailable otherwise, the Bush administration would have leaked those cases to their sycophants. It’s not like they give a rat’s *ss about national security, and they spent 8 years (correctly) believeing that they were above the law.

    When we see Cheney (otherwise known as the guy who felt himself the abovest the law) leaking such crap, it’s pretty clear that the administration has nothing.

  6. Wayne says:

    Alex
    Repeating time and time again that enhanced interrogation and\or torture doesn’t work and your so call professional claim it so doesn’t make it so. Many people have refuted your claims many times already and simply are tired of rehashing facts that you ignored.

    If you want to know who the top experts are in this field, talk to the Russians. They have done it for decades and done it with a scientific approach. They keep their secrets close to the heir chest but at least one former agent laughed at the naiveté of Americans when it comes to the effectiveness of torture and\or EIT.

  7. Brian Knapp says:

    If you want to know who the top experts are in this field, talk to the Russians. They have done it for decades and done it with a scientific approach. They keep their secrets close to the heir chest but at least one former agent laughed at the naiveté of Americans when it comes to the effectiveness of torture and\or EIT.

    Yeah! Let’s be like the Communist Russians!! Torture is awesome!

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Wayne,

    Many people have refuted your claims many times already and simply are tired of rehashing facts that you ignored.

    Such as… ? Got a link or two?

    If you want to know who the top experts are in this field, talk to the Russians. They have done it for decades and done it with a scientific approach.

    The KGB used torture to coerce false confessions. Torture is very good for that. However, the KGB did not use torture as a means of gathering reliable intelligence. They tended to recruit their assets financially.

    They keep their secrets close to the heir chest

    In other words, you don’t have any evidence…

  9. Alex, I’m not trying to rationalize a position or even to change your mind. As for what I believe, all I have is a few thousand years of pretty well documented history that says that torture can work if what you are after is information. I put no stock into confessions of any sort obtained with even the mildest forms of torture and find its use abhorrent for those purposes or as a means of punishment or garden variety sadism. But even when it comes to obtaining information, I’m not necessarily advocating it — contrary to your self-righteous accusations — but saying it just doesn’t work, well, just doesn’t work.

    As for your sources, in any large organization there are going to be people who take positions in opposition to existing policy or personnel for any of a thousand reasons. Why, in many cases they can even produce things they wrote that clearly showed they thought their bosses were wrong. Color me unimpressed with these appeals to authority, or perhaps that should be appeals to those who disagreed with authority. It doesn’t mean they aren’t correct, but it doesn’t mean they are either.

    You’re entitled to your beliefs and to offer information and arguments to support them. But you are wearing some rather significant blinders on some topics, this being one of them.

  10. You know, Alex, with all due respect, reading your response to Wayne, you don’t have evidence either. What you have are opinions.

    What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.

    Notice the words might and may in that paragraph? Are you calling speculation evidence?

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    all I have is a few thousand years of pretty well documented history that says that torture can work if what you are after is information.

    Really? Like what? Point me to a book. A scholarly article. Anything.

    But even when it comes to obtaining information, I’m not necessarily advocating it — contrary to your self-righteous accusations — but saying it just doesn’t work, well, just doesn’t work.

    I’m not saying that you will never get a good piece of information from torture. But more often you don’t, and you waste time and resources chasing false leads. What I’m saying is that the systematic use of torture is not a reliable means of obtaining actionable intelligence and that the negative consequences of its use to national security far outweigh any potential benefit.

    Additionally, yes, from a moral point of view I also find its use abhorrent. However, it has been my experience that in the long run, the moral course of action is also the practical one.

  12. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    Notice the words might and may in that paragraph? Are you calling speculation evidence?

    If you read the articles linked through, you’ll see that it goes beyond mere speculation. The words “might” and “may” are proper because not everybody reacts to stress hormones in the same way. They generally do cause tissue damage but not always. Biochemistry is more complex than physics–it’s not as simple as “the acceleration on objects due to Earth’s gravity is 9.8 m/s2.” If you read the evidence supplied, you will see that the alterations of memory and destruction of frontal lobe tissue does occur during prolonged stress situations. This is why many soliders, for example, develop PTSD. But not all do, because not everyone is affected in the same way.

  13. Alex, as for my sources, start with Thucydides and work forward.

  14. What I’m saying is that the systematic use of torture is not a reliable means of obtaining actionable intelligence and that the negative consequences of its use to national security far outweigh any potential benefit.

    Systematic? My goodness, how many thousands, nay, millions have we tortured? I suppose you believe what happened at Abu Ghraib was policy rather than an aberration that led to soldiers being charged, convicted and incarcerated.

  15. Drew says:

    “Biochemistry is more complex than physics..”

    LOL

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    Alex, as for my sources, start with Thucydides and work forward.

    This is from the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It is the only mention of an act of torture in that history that I can tell:

    “The assassin escaped; but his accomplice, an Argive, was taken and put to the torture by the Four Hundred, without their being able to extract from him the name of his employer, or anything further than that he knew of many men who used to assemble at the house of the commander of the Peripoli and at other houses.”

    I admit I was relying on my memory of the events he discussed (I haven’t read this in a couple years, so it’s a little sketchy) and some text searching to find this. Was there something I missed?

  17. Alex Knapp says:

    “Biochemistry is more complex than physics..”

    LOL

    Fair enough. More complex than Newtonian physics?

  18. Alex Knapp says:

    Systematic? My goodness, how many thousands, nay, millions have we tortured?

    Systematic as in instituionalized. And there were thousands at Gitmo who were subject to stress postions, sensory deprivation, etc.

  19. Wayne says:

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/torture_wrong_and_doesnt_work/

    http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/08/does_torture_work.php

    Here a testimony of former CIA agent saying water boarding is effective. Getting someone to say it on the record is tough since it implies guilt.
    http://www.ibtimes.co.in/articles/20071212/waterboarding-torture-cia-al-qaeda.htm

    Here a list of torturing done to gain intelligence in recent time. If not effective then why do it and please don’t claim all did it for sadistic purposes.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uses_of_torture_in_recent_times

  20. Norman Rogers says:

    What nonsense!

    1. Defining all forms of coercion as “torture”.

    2. Claiming proof that coercion never works.

    3. Claiming that the use of coercion somehow diminishes America’s “moral authority” and that somehow translates to less effectiveness.

    Gee, Obama sure commands more respect overseas than did GWB, right? Where do you think his next cave-in will occur?

  21. Brian Knapp says:

    1. Defining all forms of coercion as “torture”.

    2. Claiming proof that coercion never works.

    3. Claiming that the use of coercion somehow diminishes America’s “moral authority” and that somehow translates to less effectiveness.

    Nicely done!

    1. Of course coercion isn’t torture! Coercion should be part of our daily lives. Cops should be able to “coerce” anyone they want!

    2. Coercion works all the time! You just have to define “truth” correctly.

    3. Coercion is no big deal, morally speaking. that’s why Jesus was a fan of it.

  22. the q says:

    I remember, as a young kid, watching with my Dad, (a WW2 vet – second wave at Omaha), the movie Stalag 17.

    In one scene in particular, a U.S. pilot is being tortured by the Gestapo through the use of sleep deprivation.

    He was forced to stand for days without sleep to force a confession that he had sabotaged a German train.

    As this is happening, a “Geneva Man” from the Red Cross is visiting camp, and responding to a request by the POWs, looks into the accusations that Lt. Dunbar is being tortured by the camp Kommandant.

    GENEVA MAN
    I want to talk about Lieutenant
    Dunbar. What exactly is he charged with?

    VON SCHERBACH
    Whatever it is, it’s out of your
    jurisdiction. This man is not a
    prisoner of war. Not any more. He is
    a saboteur.

    GENEVA MAN
    He is a prisoner of war until you
    can prove sabotage.Just remember, after the hostilities
    are ended, there will be such a thing
    as a War Crimes Commission. If this
    man should be convicted without proper
    proof, you will be held responsible,
    Colonel von Scherbach.

    At this point, I remember my dad yelling out,
    “Son, thats what separated us from the Nazis and its what separates us from the Russians.

    Americans don’t torture. Thats why we won the war and why inherently the Russians are doomed.”

    We shouldn’t use torture, not because it may or may not work, but rather it is MORALLY repugnant and does little to differentiate us from the barbarians we are trying to defeat.

    Once we descend to those levels, we lose the moral authority so carefully cultivated during the Cold War.

    And believe me, as someone who has traveled to over 60 countries in the past 25 years, our moral standing took a ferocious beating because of Cheney’s actions.

    To Charles Austin who putatively is condoning torture by pointing out it may be effective, thanks pal for being an un american twit and giving comfort to our enemies, who propagandize Abu Ghraib to recruit radical Muslim youth to suicide bomb our soldiers.

    Cheney should definitely be put on trial, and if convicted, hung. Preferably in Texas where they seem to kill folks pretty quick after they’re convicted.

    And just remember, if we torture them, they can torture us.

    So the next time you see one of our fine young soldiers captured, beaten, and paraded around and dehumanized, how can we complain if we are doing far worse??

    Please Charles Austin, I await your twisted response.

  23. the q says:

    Hey, Norman Rogers, ever been out of your trailer park, buddy?

    Stop your work in the meth lab and travel about the world a little and you will see the stupidity of your obama remark.

  24. Wayne says:

    Looks like my last post didn’t take maybe too many links. Let‘s cut to the chase. You claim torture and or EIT doesn’t work.

    So if a few thugs were to kidnap you and a love one that shares a debit card and took you to a isolated basement. Put the two of you in separate rooms and take your card then demanded your pin number and if you don’t give the same answer as your love one and\or they find that you have been lying they will cut off one of yours and one of your love one’s body parts until they got the right answer. You are claiming that it wouldn’t work?

  25. An Interested Party says:

    re: Wayne | September 22, 2009 | 07:43 pm

    Who knew that torture porn movie scenarios should be official U.S. government policy…

  26. Wayne says:

    AIP
    Yep, if you can’t refute a point throw insults.

    There are many who say torture doesn’t work. That is factually incorrect which the previous scenario should make “painfully” obvious to any reasonable person. Admit that torture and EIT can and does work at times and then we can continue with wither we should or shouldn’t use them. Denying it just shows how unreasonable someone is and there is not much point on continuing the argument.

  27. Alex Knapp says:

    So if a few thugs were to kidnap you and a love one that shares a debit card and took you to a isolated basement. Put the two of you in separate rooms and take your card then demanded your pin number and if you don’t give the same answer as your love one and\or they find that you have been lying they will cut off one of yours and one of your love one’s body parts until they got the right answer. You are claiming that it wouldn’t work?

    Well, it wouldn’t, because I don’t know my wife’s ATM PIN number. They could torture me to their heart’s content and they wouldn’t get a thing because I don’t know the answer. But they wouldn’t conclude that, would they? They’d assume that I was lying and keep torturing me more and more…

    Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that many of the detainees at Gitmo and Bagram weren’t part of al-Qaeda. Which means that EITs wouldn’t do a damn bit of good and the evidence shows they cause quite a bit of harm.

    Let me flip the scenario, Wayne. Let’s say the thugs kidnap you and a random woman. The thugs insist that she’s your wife and that you have her PIN number. You insist that she’s not your wife, but they keep hacking away at body parts until… finally… because of the pain… You admit she’s your wife. Then you throw out a random string of numbers. And they torture you more because it doesn’t match up. You try to take it back, that the woman isn’t your wife, but it’s too late now. Now they’re convinced that she’s your wife because it took you so long to break…

    That’s what happens in real life.

    Admit that torture and EIT can and does work at times and then we can continue with wither we should or shouldn’t use them.

    If you truly believed that, you’d respond to the posts where I mention that torture serves as a terrorist recruiting tool and that it makes it harder to recruit intelligence assets. But you never do, Wayne.

  28. Wayne says:

    Alex
    Reread the scenario I said you two “shared” a debit card. Therefore you would have the information. In my scenario the thugs would get a wealth of information. In yours they would not. End results are that sometime it work and sometimes it doesn’t.

    If the thugs were smart they could greatly increase those odds with a little prior Intel gathering which any good thug would. Same work with terrorist. A good interrogation regardless of method would require the interrogator to have and fair idea of what the one being interrogated knows and who they are. Not that there are not other methods when you don’t know but that applies to EIT as well. An interrogator wouldn’t ask every question in the book. You would end up giving away more than would receive.

    You just need to ask. My post tend to get long as it even without of addressing every point.

    Terrorist will use anything as a recruiting tool including any sign of weakness and weakness is a very big part for many in their world. It can help in recruiting some assets since they may be afraid they may be apprehended and torture so they will offer themselves as an asset. It works better if you know they know something but hurts if you don’t know. This can be minimized by not making torture a standard policy but a rare exception. That way you get a good portion of both worlds. The “innocent” won’t fear for a random pickup and torture but the guilty will have some fear also. IMO the recruitment part is a wash and the asset part is a gain as long as we do it in a certain way. Like most of the time, success and failure is in the details. To far one way or another will hurt our efforts.

    Now your turn, reread my scenario, if you and your love one shared a debit card and I will specify now that you both know the PIN number, wouldn’t torture work?

  29. Wayne says:

    Oh one more thing on the scenarios, in one case you have more Intel while the other case you are still at the same place you started at.

  30. mark says:

    Whoa! Alex don’t freak! The world is not bound by moral law. So you mash a mind like a supercollider mashes a proton. Then you sift through the debris looking for a few tidbits of useful information. Most of it is junk, but so what? There are so many more to smash.

    Gosh! I hope God doesn’t think we’re being naughty!

  31. the q says:

    So, wayne, where does it end….I see a Mexican on the street and I’m a cop.

    I believe that he must know who the gang banger was that just killed my fellow officer.

    I grab him, push him in my car and start tasering his balls.

    Since he’s Mexican and has tattoos and is in “gang territory” and is a suspected “gang member”, surely torturing him will supply the information I am looking for.

    Or say, I am Al Qaeda, I kidnap an American soldier in Iraq, surely I must torture him since he probably could tell me where his other mates are hidden/located so I can enter the coordinates into my mortar and blow them up.

    Or suppose I am Torquemada and I think you are a Jew….well, I think you get the idea.

  32. Wayne says:

    Where to draw the line is a tough one. However first if you were Al Qaeda. you would torture American soldier and often it has nothing to do with gathering intelligence. The Geneva conventions and\or not torturing others have not been very effective in preventing others from doing it to our military personnel. Even n WWII the main reason Japan and Germany finally started following some of the rules was because many realized there was a good chance they could lose the war.

    Personally I would require Presidential approval for actual torture. EIT would be a lesser standard. I also think the legislator should clearly define what is and isn’t torture. Of course the major problem with that is they often are more concern with appearances than dealing with hard reality. They want to appear all innocent but want to be safe to.

    Your cop example would fall way below my standard for justification of torture.

    Will you answer the ticking time bomb scenario where you know that the assailant knows the whereabouts of a nuclear device that will kill millions but refuse to talk. Do you torture him and get the information or let millions die?

    Please don’t give me the lame argument that he will lie and you won’t get the information. One you will be able to verifying if he is lying or not by perhaps others you have caught or by actually checking it out. Two you definitely won’t get the information if you don’t torture him. So what is better a chance or no chance?

  33. Wayne says:

    Q
    You are not one of those that claim torture and\or EIT doesn’t work?

  34. An Interested Party says:

    Will you answer the ticking time bomb scenario where you know that the assailant knows the whereabouts of a nuclear device that will kill millions but refuse to talk. Do you torture him and get the information or let millions die?

    Why should U.S. government policy be based on an episode of 24? Has this doomsday scenario ever happened in reality…

  35. tom p says:

    You are not one of those that claim torture and\or EIT doesn’t work?

    Wayne, I am one that claims it does work… quite well!

    Give me 72 hrs and I can have you confessing to b*tt-f*ing Baracks love children back in the 60’s while you were on ludes and LSD, then shipping them off to Mexico where their fat was rendered into meth which you shipped off to Osama and he fed to the 9/11 hijackers which made them particularly susceptable to Osama’s evil suggestions….

    Don’t you get it? Given enuf time, I can make you say anything. It doesn’t have to be the truth, just what I think the truth is.

    And who is to say I am not just as deluded as the previous scenario so aptly demonstrated that I am?

    What I always wonder tho, is why those who are so against allowing the gov’t to “control” our health care, have no problem at all with allowing the gov’t to torture anyone they want any time they want….

    Ooooops, my bad, I meant to say use “enhanced interrogation techniques” not “torture” (good nazi that I am)(ooooooops, did I just break Godwin’s law? Maybe it is another law. I get so confused with people quoting Goebels, and Himmler, and Hess, etc etc)oooops again, (a small correction: Not that anyone is actually quoting Goebels or Himmler, or Hess, but they sure sound a lot like them from time to time… especially when they say, “enhanced interrogation techniques”).

  36. Wayne says:

    Yep we shouldn’t think about possibilities like flying planes into a skyscraper since you can’t refute my point or think about what we should do or not do in different scenarios. Let us wait until something happens before we decide how it should be handled. Typical liberal don’t be proactive and complain about it afterwards.

    Tom p I said nothing about making people confess. It is about gaining intelligence. Yes I can make you tell me that you live at the White house but I can also make you tell where you really live. One can be refuted and the other can be verified. That is the nature of any Intel gathering. The end result is I will find out where you really live.

    Where have I claim that the government should be able to torture anyone anytime?

    There is difference between EIT and torture but you go ahead with your liberal ways of ignoring facts, making false claims and claiming other say something that they did not.