People continue to treat the claim that institutionalized torture is not an effective investigative method as some kind of fringe position adopted out of convenience by squishes who don’t want to face up to the hard tradeoffs in the world. But the fact remains that this is what you hear from everyone who does investigations professionals. And it’s also the case that you never see examples of highly effective investigative agencies being reliant on torture. The Dzerzhinksy-era NKVD put on a lot of great show trials, but the Bratton-era NYPD didn’t bring about an impressive drop in crime rates through “enhanced interrogation methods.”
Meanwhile, here’s Ali Soufan, an FBI supervisory special agent who oversaw elements of the Zubaydah interrogations, speaking out:
For seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned. [...]
It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence. [...]
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.
Soufan hints at this briefly, but another problem with institutionalized torture is that it wrecks your entire system of laws. If you do a normal investigation and get someone to cough up the name of a confederate, then you can arrest the confederate. And then you can interrogate him through normal methods. But if you torture someone to get him to cough up the name of a confederate, then what do you do? Well, you’ll have to kidnap him and send him to a “black site” or something. But then whatever info you get from him also has to go on the “secret” side of your operations. That means you can’t share it effectively with state and local law enforcement, or with the Border Patrol or with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Either that, or else in the name of effective counterterrorism you need to completely rebuild the entire system of law enforcement and criminal justice along Stalinist lines. The FBI, which in additional to having national security responsibilities has always been in a position where it needs to cooperate with the “ordinary” police and prosecutors, is attuned to these kind of problems which, I think, is one reason why it was more institutionally resistance than the CIA to getting into the torture business. But in the long haul, to fight terrorism it’s extremely important to have effective methods of information-sharing and cooperation both vertically and horizontally across a very large country with a great diversity of law enforcement agencies. To take the most “high value” sources of information and unplug them from the rest of the system is a disaster.