Thursday, December 25, 2014

Torture [EBP6].

This document has come to be known colloquially as the CIA torture report.


Merry Christmas!  This isn't at all a festive topic, but it's been on my mind lately, and I've stumbled upon some free time because the people with whom I am spending Christmas don't share my 07:00 start time.  Half an hour ago I discovered the hidden pickle ornament which shall entitle me to the "Pickle Present," when everyone else is awake, and now I'm bored.

Many nation states have tortured prisoners in an attempt to gain intelligence in the past, and I'm sure many will into the future.  Islamic State militants are currently torturing their prisoners using the "waterboarding" technique in an act of vengeance (though I'm sure they would have it framed as reciprocity).  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, United States operatives utilised what have come to be known "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" (EIT) which bear a striking resemblance to what the rest of the civilised world would call "torture."  I'm not going to get into the details, because that isn't the point of this post.

Torture is sort of a heavy topic, so here's a picture of a puppy.  This scruffy fellow's name is Sawyer.

In a move that I am going to applaud, the US Senate reviewed and then publicly disclosed the results the use of EIT, and it's not good (you can find a good summary here).  The long and short of it is that  it did not work nearly as well as had been hoped or represented by the CIA.  Frankly, this doesn't surprise me either.  Part of first year psychology classes includes the lesson that torture doesn't provide useful information because, when under that level of duress, people will say anything to make the pain stop.  This is more or less what was found by the Senate Committee, though the CIA asserts that a known courier to Osama bin Laden was named after the use of EITs on a detainee.

Torture makes for exciting television or movie storylines, and it seems to appeal to a "common sense" notion that hurting people will force them to give up useful intelligence, but in practice it doesn't really work.  Any careful organisation will enforce a "need-to-know" system in which most detainees wouldn't have any useful information anyway.  

That question remains, however, how do you acquire intelligence from a prisoner if not through torture?  They're not supposed to tell you useful information after all, so what do you?  Well, here's a novel, Chistmas-y idea: try being nice to them.  The most interesting sources which I have come across on this topic were in psychology lectures (which might be misremembered, it might be in the text), and in the book "The Defence of the Realm," the authorised history of MI5.  The only source I could easily Google can be found here, and mirrors what I've read elsewhere.  In essence, if you treat a person as hostile, they're less likely to co-operate with you.  If you tell them honestly that they are no longer a combatant (because they aren't), and if you express genuine empathy for their situation, they're far more likely to co-operate.  As mentioned in the source, Hans Scharff was an interrogator for the Luftwaffe in World War II.  He was so successful that some of his US prisoners were tried for treason after the war  because he had gotten so much information out of them.  That's how successful you can be when you don't act like the evil enemy you might be portrayed as.

When I come downstairs in the morning in Belleville (this was taken when I was recovering from hip surgery), Bailey comes to see me and we have a "chat."
It's also worth noting that, though the Republican Party does not widely condemn the use of EIT, prominent Republican John McCain does.  He specifically states that torturing detainees compromises "...that which most distinguishes us from our enemies.  Our belief that all people, even captured enemies, posses basic human rights."  He's absolutely correct.  Specifically now, when Islamic State militants are being condemned for their inhuman acts, it's difficult to maintain the moral high ground while actively torturing prisoners.  So going forward, let's all remember the Christmas spirit, and engage in the evidence-based practice of not torturing people.

"By the way," you might ask, while polishing your monocle, "why did John McCain come out so strongly against torture when the rest of his party did not?"  It probably has to do with the fact that John McCain was tortured in Vietnam.


Suggested reading/watching:

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