The Uselessness of Torture

Scott Shane for The New York Times reports on the non-existent value of torturing Abu Zubayda:

The first use of waterboarding and other rough treatment against a prisoner from Al Qaeda was ordered by senior Central Intelligence Agency officials despite the belief of interrogators that the prisoner had already told them all he knew, according to former intelligence officials and a footnote in a newly released legal memorandum. […] Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.

The specific information is good to have. But one doesn’t really need to peer too deeply into a specific case to know that institutionalized torture is not an effective investigative method.

In abstract terms, trained interrogators already have decent methods for getting accurate information out of prisoners. Subjecting the prisoner to coercion, physical suffer, and mental torment can certain get someone to say more things but the very fact that the “things” were coerced out of the captive by torture limits their value. You’ll almost certainly get him to say some accurate stuff. He might, for example, correctly insist that he doesn’t know anything more. But he’ll also say all kinds of inaccurate stuff. He’ll say whatever he thinks will get you to stop torturing him.


In historical terms, you don’t look back on the Spanish Inquisition or on Stalin’s Russia and say man, those guys had some crack investigators! Rather, you see that historically the function of torture has been to extract false confessions and to inspire a general climate of fear.