Torture Wrong and Doesn’t Work

Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel and former professional interrogator, argues that torture is wrong and doesn’t work.

Herrington undermines his case a bit by prefacing it with the suggestion that a sophomoric lesson that he learned in a freshman ethics course — “[E]thical principles were absolute. Right was right; wrong was wrong.” — was a given. Still, the meat of his essay comports with what I was taught as a cadet and junior Army officer twenty-odd years ago:

I and other authentic practitioners of the interrogation art respect our adversaries, however wrong we may deem their cause. We know that obtaining information from a captive who is motivated by his beliefs, his country, his honor or perhaps by the very human desire to live a full life with his family, is an elusive task that requires a patient, systematic approach.

One has to “go to school” on each captive. Who is he? Can I communicate with him in his language? What are his core beliefs? His loves? Hates? Fears? Where do his loyalties lie? Does he have a family, an inflated ego, perhaps some other core vulnerability? Does he have a hobby or some passion that might get him talking? What do we know about his activities before he fell into our hands? What about his religion? Sect? Tribe? Culture? Or the history of his movement? What have other captives in our hands said about him? Did he have documents or a computer that were seized with him? What drives this unique individual?

Professional interrogation is thus a developmental process, requiring extensive preparation. It requires in-depth assessment of the prisoner, all complemented by a healthy measure of guile, wits and patience.

Seasoned interrogators know that an important first step is to disarm one’s adversary by resorting to the unexpected. Treat a captured general or colonel with dignity and respect. Better yet, treat a sergeant like he is a colonel or general.

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners “guests” and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner’s belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely “take off the gloves” and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our “guests.” This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.

He rightly notes that, “10 years ago the notion we would even be having such a dialogue was unthinkable.” Then again, 9/11 changed everything, including rendering some of our basic value assumptions open to discussion.

Via Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: General, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    This Herrington character is just another phony soldier who is buying into the Defeatocrat agenda of supporting the evildoers.

    It is important to point out that this character is trying to sell a book–and obviously feels justified in attacking the troops for his own personal gain.

    Having the politically-correct stand that torture is bad may help Herrington sell books, but without torture we would all be speaking Arabic right now and our civilization would be destroyed.

  2. Anderson says:

    Then again, 9/11 changed everything, including rendering some of our basic value assumptions open to discussion.

    The damage done by the terrorists, then, was far worse than 2,800 dead and millions of dollars of property destroyed.

  3. Anderson says:

    2,800

    (2,975 saith Wikipedia … I would like to see a graph of how the arithmetic has fluctuated; thought it was being pegged lower than that for a while.)

  4. James Joyner says:

    I would like to see a graph of how the arithmetic has fluctuated; thought it was being pegged lower than that for a while.

    I don’t think there’s a consistent number being used. Some use all the deaths. Some exclude the terrorists themselves. And many times only those at the Twin Towers themselves are cited, since the Pentagon and Flight 93 fatalities aren’t part of the shared drama in quite the same way.

    And I think there are still some “missing” folks, mostly from NYC, that are accounted for in different ways.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Ten years ago I doubt we would would have imagined war in Iraq and Afghanistan or an attack by airliner on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Things change and people adapt in many ways. Having a discussion about how far we go when interrogating prisoners who aren’t quite soldiers but far from civilians is actually a healthy thing not something to be ashamed of. It’s a cruel, dangerous world out there and we better get used to it.

  6. Anderson says:

    Having a discussion about how far we go when interrogating prisoners who aren’t quite soldiers but far from civilians is actually a healthy thing not something to be ashamed of.

    You know, JJ, maybe those “sophomoric principles” weren’t such a bad idea after all.

  7. legion says:

    Having a discussion about how far we go when interrogating prisoners who aren’t quite soldiers but far from civilians is actually a healthy thing not something to be ashamed of.

    It would be marvelous if that could actually happen, Steve, but that’s part of the problem… no serious discussion has happened, or ever will (IMHO) so long as Bush and Cheney are in charge. They have unilaterally decided torture is a useful and acceptable thing without any input from the actual citizens they nominally represent – the US does torture prisoners, and will continue to do so until these oathbreakers are removed from power.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Ten years ago I doubt we would would have imagined war in Iraq and Afghanistan or an attack by airliner on the World Trade Center and Pentagon

    Ten years ago we had already had a war with Iraq, and Tom Clancy had written about a 747 being crashed into the Capitol.

    Perhaps you to imagine a bit harder…

  9. Wayne says:

    The Army colonel admits that he has never tried torture techniques. So how would he know if they work?

    He only knows what someone told him on it. The military has a great interest to keep their interrogators from using those techniques for the most part. One way to keep them from doing it is to tell them it doesn’t work so they won’t even try. That is what the military told us but talk to others that have use harsh interrogation techniques “HIT” and you will get a different story.
    Of course the age-old question of what constitutes torture is not define. Even the military interrogators are taught some aggressive techniques. They don’t always play the good cop part.

    Yes, given time many of the softer techniques will work, often with greater success than HIT. However sometimes it doesn’t, especially if there is a time constraint.

    Can someone lie to you while you use HIT? Yes. They often lie to you under soft techniques as well. There are ways to weed out the truth under both situations.

    Any reasonable person who has tried HIT or listen to both side of the argument will come to the conclusion that if done right it can work.

  10. James Joyner says:

    You know, JJ, maybe those “sophomoric principles” weren’t such a bad idea after all.

    Certainly, there’s an ease that comes from adopting Kantian rules.

  11. Christopher says:

    Good point, triumph.

    OMG! Can you believe what will happen of the democrats take over the white house? We are talking horrible consequences. Bill Clinton did his part by cutting the military significantly, then using the savings for deficit reduction, claiming what a brilliant economic plan he had. (And people believe him!)

    Iraq and every Islamic terrorist we haven’t yet killed will be gunning for us if dems take the white house. Then the dems will promptly dig a hole in the dirt and stick their head in it.

  12. Ugh says:

    The Army colonel admits that he has never tried torture techniques. So how would he know if they work? He only knows what someone told him on it. The military has a great interest to keep their interrogators from using those techniques for the most part. One way to keep them from doing it is to tell them it doesn’t work so they won’t even try. That is what the military told us but talk to others that have use harsh interrogation techniques “HIT” and you will get a different story.

    I’ve never tried jumping off a ten-story building in the hopes that I can fly. So how could I know if I can’t? I only know that my mother told me I couldn’t fly. She has a great interest in keeping away from flying for the most part. One way to keep me from flying is for her to tell me I can’t so I don’t even try. That is what my mother told me but when I talk to others that have flown using arm flapping techniques “AFT” I got a different story.

    I’m jumping tomorrow to see what the truth is.

  13. Tano says:

    “Then again, 9/11 changed everything, including rendering some of our basic value assumptions open to discussion”

    Gee, where are the true conservatives when you need them? Y’know, the ones who make the case for eternal principles that should not flit away in the face of the crisis of the moment?

  14. mannning says:

    Taking sound advice is a good thing. Conflicting advice, however, is a puzzle. Physics 101 should have answered the question to his satisfaction, but some people just have to experience the wingless phenomena for themselves. I hope Ugh’s flight is successful, and he can report on it tomorrow.

    Perhaps we shall never hear from him again, if the building he jumps from is tall enough–say 50 stories.

    Hasta la vista!

  15. Anderson says:

    It’s not like there’s historical evidence on torture for Col. Herrington to draw on, after all.

    But hey, just read the internets for how great coercion works. Guy’s found in a NY hotel after 9/11 with a radio in his room, a special radio used to talk to pilots in flight.

    Since the guy’s Egyptian, our bad boys sit him down and tell him that if he confesses, fine, but if he won’t confess, we’ll make sure his family in Egypt gets “put through hell.” Which, given Egypt’s reputation for torture, is none too subtle.

    So the guy thinks, “I’m screwed either way, so I’ll save my family,” and confesses — yeah, sure, it’s my radio, etc., etc.

    Then a few days later, an airline pilot comes up to the hotel’s desk and says, “hey, have you guys seen my radio?”

    The Egyptian guy was innocent, but he confessed just from the *threat* that his *family* might be tortured.

    Just think what he would’ve confessed to under torture! We could’ve solved the murders of JFK, Jimmy Hoffa, and Judge Crater!

    So enough, please, with “we don’t know how well torture works.” We do. It works great for getting confessions … to anything. No wonder the Inquisition, the witch-finders, and the KGB loved it.

  16. Wayne says:

    Ugh
    “I’ve never tried jumping off a ten-story building in the hopes that I can fly. So how could I know if I can’t?”

    Good example. You believe you can’t fly off a ten-story building because someone told you. However people do fly off of buildings. There are base-jumping parachutists, gliders, rocket packs, rotary wind aircraft and other methods to fly off buildings. Of course there are different definition of flying but it is clear it can be done.

    Just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    Anderson

    Yes there are examples when harsh interrogation techniques weren’t done properly and didn’t work. However there are many examples when it has. Including a few years ago of an Army Colonel that got into trouble for shoving a pistol in a capture face and told him to talk or die. The capture talk and save American soldiers lives. There are plenty example in history of it working.

  17. Anderson says:

    Wayne, you don’t appear to understand the subject. No one ever said that torture won’t produce good intel. Sure it will. If I torture you and demand your name, you’ll tell me your freakin’ name.

    The issue is, whether torture is superior to other methods in producing good intel, and whether torture has aspects that make it inferior. It’s not superior — you can get people to talk just fine without torturing them, if you show them some respect and behave cannily. (Look up Mark Bowden’s article on how we nailed Zarqawi by cleverly interrogating our subjects.)

    And torture has obvious bad effects I’ve described. If I’m not happy that you say your name is Wayne, and I want you to confess you’re Batman, then I’ll keep torturing you — until you admit it.

    The frustration shown by the colonel in your anecdote is precisely the kind of attitude that not only leads to torture, but results in torture’s being used to yield false info. Obviously, the colonel wasn’t going to take “dunno” for an answer. But sometimes (hell, most of the time) “dunno” is the truth.

  18. Ugh says:

    Wayne and mannning – I give up, you guys win, torture is great. But I don’t want to see you guys advocating any panty-waist, pussified, namby-pamby techniques like “water-boarding” or “slapping” or “long-time standing” – as evidenced by the third one’s name, those things take way too long to work, and who knows how much time we have with the ticking time bomb that will destroy us ticking away.

    So from now on you guys need to stand for “whatever works.” If we have to pull out fingernails, you’re all for it. Electricity to the genitals? A-OK. A few runs of the blow-torch? Super. Any of those techniques applied to the terrorists’ family, including young children? Fine by you. After all, what’s a few mutilated and terrorized young kids in the whole of the TTBS?

    Onward to victory for freedom!

  19. Steve Plunk says:

    The frustrating thing for this conservative is the manner in which liberals even discuss the need for “torture”. When I mention that it’s healthy to have such a discussion I’m ridiculed rather than debated. When others talk about success of coercive techniques it digresses into pulling fingernails and blow torches. The left will not have a serious conversation about a very serious matter, why not?

    Bright lines must be established for what is and is not “torture”. Is loud music? Is isolation? Is water boarding? Grown ups ask these questions in a frank manner without the baggage that so many liberal thinkers drag in.

    As a society open discussion of any topic should be encouraged not discouraged. It is obvious many who frequent this site do not see it the same.

    One last observation. The Colonel talks as if we are doing everything wrong when as far as I can see he wasn’t there to actually see what happened or what is happening. Of course second guessing everything to do with the war has become something of a cottage industry. I just wonder how many other colonels would disagree with this one’s assessment?

  20. Tano says:

    “Bright lines must be established for what is and is not “torture”. Is loud music? Is isolation? Is water boarding?”

    Why not keep it simple? Lets define torture as anything that you would call torture if it were being done to an American soldier by an enemy.

  21. Wayne says:

    Anderson
    This thread is getting old so I hope you see this.

    You and Steve made some very good points. However you said, “No one ever said that torture won’t produce good Intel.” Read some of the previous post and the main article. “Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel and former professional interrogator, argues that torture is wrong and doesn’t work.”

    So obvious some do claim it doesn’t work. My point is that it often does. Now I’m willing to discuss when and if it should be used. However how can anyone reasonable discuss that when they won’t acknowledge simple basic facts?

  22. Wayne says:

    Anderson
    One more thing, the “colonel in my anecdote” was real and the information he received saved lives. It was on Fox News back then.

    As I stated before, people can lie to you under any type of interrogation but there are methods to shift out the truth. Also most will tell the truth under great pain or duress unless they don’t know which then they may make things up. It is usually easy to tell when they do. There are psychological reasons for this but I won’t get into those.

  23. Ugh says:

    The frustrating thing for this conservative is the manner in which liberals even discuss the need for “torture”. When I mention that it’s healthy to have such a discussion I’m ridiculed rather than debated. When others talk about success of coercive techniques it digresses into pulling fingernails and blow torches.

    If we’re going to discuss the “need for ‘torture'” then the various torture techniques need to be put on the table. If we need to torture then by-God let’s not half-ass it.

    Bright lines must be established for what is and is not “torture”. Is loud music? Is isolation? Is water boarding? Grown ups ask these questions in a frank manner without the baggage that so many liberal thinkers drag in.

    Bright lines had already been established for what is an is not torture or otherwise permissible with respect to people captured during war (and otherwise). It wasn’t until Bush, Cheney, Addington and their addiction to executive power and secrecy came along who decided that things weren’t so clear and then produced tranparently farcical legal opinions justifying what they wanted to do when things seemed to get muddy. IOW, grownups had already asked these questions and decided that none of these things were permissible. Why do you want to reinvent the wheel?

    As a society open discussion of any topic should be encouraged not discouraged. It is obvious many who frequent this site do not see it the same.

    Because this is exactly what the administration did when it decided that things were blurry when it came to the definition of torture in our statutes in treaties. It went to the Congress and said “we’re not sure if techniques (a) through (z) are torture, can you please pass law telling us whether or not our current legal regime allows these?” Right? Nope, instead they did as I note above, contravened the law in secret. And why? Because they knew if they asked Congress to clarify they’d get slapped down.

  24. mannning says:

    Pardon me, but no one in this thread has established anything here. No definitions, no rules, nothing! Pointing to someplace else isn’t sufficient to make the point. Write it here. Or just forget the whole thing.