How Torture Works


Everybody breaks under torture. From Winston Smith to Jason Bourne.

Torture would work on me, for example.

If somebody starts crushing my fingertips with a pair of pliers, I’m going to tell them my ATM PIN, Batman’s secret identity, whatever.

But if you asked me where Bin Laden was, then I’m not the only person who has a problem.

Because I don’t know where Bin Laden is, but if you think I do, and keep torturing me, you’re going to get a lot of disinformation.

“Ticking time bombs” do exist, I suppose, and perhaps once in a blue moon timely torture saves the day.

But “ticking time bombs” are disproportionately invoked by torture apologists to justify quotidian torture a.k.a. “enhanced interrogation techniques” a.k.a. “coercive interrogation” a.k.a. “the third degree” as an instrument of law enforcement/national security practice.  And it’s pretty clear that routine torture doesn’t yield good data, certainly not the “actionable intelligence unavailable by other means” that is torture’s holy grail.

That’s because the martyrs and no-goodniks who expect to be tortured develop countermeasures.

And because torturers usually go too far, out of stupidity, sadism, or failing to make a careful plan to retrieve a discrete piece of information.  The weak signal—truthful information—is often overwhelmed, almost instantaneously, by the noise generated by the torturers’ poorly formulated questions and the victims’ disoriented responses.  The response to this disappointing state of affairs is often more torture, more bad data, more torture ad infinitum.

Somewhere, I know, there is a generously funded program applying Claude Shannon’s information theory to optimize torture processes.

Of course, another reason to invoke the efficacy of torture is to jazz up TV and movie depictions of counter-terrorism operations. “24” and “Zero Dark Thirty” might get pretty draggy if they showed that successful interrogation usually involves endless cups of coffee and hours of tedious chitchat about some dirtbag’s boring family until the guy’s past loyalties are so far in the rearview mirror that he feels comfortable switching his allegiance to his captors.

When one views the fictionalized torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty, it should be recalled that the “torture gave us the intel” argument has been largely debunked.

Also remember that KSM was waterboarded 183 times during the real life hunt for Bin Laden…

…while he was interrogated as to the location of Bin Laden…

…and he gave wildly conflicting replies…

…just like I would.

KSM testified:

…be under questioning so many statement which been some of them I make up stories just location UBL. Where is he? I don’t know. Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area …

An alternate depiction of the Bin Laden hunt–call it 183-Zero–might show the lovely and fragile Jessica Chastain determinedly and repeatedly waterboarding KSM, then spending a few dusty months in Kandahar chasing down false leads.  Finally, she gets her hands on the guy she knows is the link to Bin Laden, she knows if she doesn’t get this guy to spill his guts pronto OBL will slip through her fingers, so she gives him the third degree with mustard on it at Bagram and he tells her…

…he tells her she’s got to talk to KSM at Guantanamo.

I see Terry Gilliam directing.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

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