by Roger Koppl
In a Wall Street Journal op ed of 2 June 2011, General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009, compares “interrogation deniers” to “birthers” and “truthers.” Hayden’s op ed mischaracterizes the basic claim of those who say torture is not effective, substitutes insult for argument, and includes a non sequitur worthy of the old joke that that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron.
Hayden defines “interrogation deniers” as “individuals who hold that the enhanced interrogation techniques used against CIA detainees have never yielded useful intelligence.” Talk about a straw man! I suppose there must be some “interrogation deniers” as defined by Hayden, and I suppose some of them are out there floating in the wide waters of the Internet, waiting for someone to cut and paste. But I don’t know of any examples, and their possible existence at the margins of public discourse has no bearing on the public question. As Glenn Greenwald noted on May 4th, “Nobody has ever argued that brutality will never produce truthful answers.” No. “[T]he point has always been — as a consensus of interrogations professionals has repeatedly said — that there are far more effective ways to extract the truth from someone than by torturing it out of them.”
The scholarly literature on torture tends to support the skeptics. The arguments showing that torture is ineffective apply to “enhanced interrogation” too, if there is such a thing apart from torture. Darius Rejali is probably the leading scholar on the inefficacy of torture. His important study Torture and Democracy shows that non-coercive interrogation generally yields more actionable intelligence and that the historical record does not support the idea that torture is a reliable technique of intelligence gathering.
I have argued here and here that torture is ineffective in most empirically relevant cases. Torture does not “work” because the torturers cannot make a credible promise to stop when the truth is finally told. This logic is not universal. In chapter five of the Invisible Hook, for example, Peter Leeson has argued that pirates raiding a ship were sometimes able to torture their victims into revealing where at least some of the ship’s treasure is hidden. In this case, however, the veracity of the report could be quickly checked and they wanted to get away once they had their booty, making further torture costly. But in modern bureaucratic torture, intelligence gathered may take a long time to confirm or disconfirm and the marginal cost of further torture is essentially zero.
Hayden’s main evidence that
torture “enhanced interrogation” works is the testimony of four CIA directors and “Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan’s statement that there’s been ‘a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists.’” Plus, he says, “when I was first briefed in 2007 about the brightening prospect of pursuing bin Laden through his courier network, a crucial component of the briefing was information provided by three CIA detainees, all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation.” His evidence, then, is that the people responsible for it say it worked just fine. Such evidence is self-serving, biased, and unreliable. In a 2002 memo, the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency warned that the use of “physical/psychological coercion in interrogation” yields unreliable information. (See here and here.)
Rather than engaging the arguments that torture is less effective than non-coercive interrogation, Hayden resorts to insult. He calls torture skeptics “interrogation deniers,” compares them to “birthers” and “truthers,” and labels their opinion “preposterous.” As Rousseau is reputed to have said, “Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.”
Hayden says that if “deniers” are “true to their faith” they should “insist” that the CIA “identify all the information derived directly or indirectly from enhanced interrogation. And then they should insist the agency destroy it.” If
torture “enhanced interrogation” is unreliable, we should view any intelligence produced by it skeptically. But it is a non sequitur to say that such skepticism means you want the CIA to throw away information. Hayden leverages this non sequitur to suggest that the “deniers” are hypocrites. Since no one is calling for the CIA to discard information, the “deniers” may “quietly concede to themselves that facts really do matter.” Deep down, he suggests, even “interrogation deniers” know he is right. Well not me. Deep down, I think he is all wrong about torture “enhanced interrogation,” and I am not swayed by straw man arguments, insults, and non sequiturs.