Thursday, March 04, 2010

Torture, Inc.

The story of how torture became part of standard operating practice at Guantanamo Bay is by now widely known (Andrew Sullivan over at The Atlantic has written extensively, and with great sense, about all these issues; a good place to start is with this open letter to George Bush). Details of the abuses meteed out to detainees such as Mohamed al-Kahtani and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of 9/11, are now in the public domain, and they make for grim reading. For months on end, Al-Katani endured a daily regime of four hours interrupted sleep, blaring music, stress positions, extremes of hot and cold, and an imaginative variety of humiliations and degradations, including a puppet show put on for his birthday in which he was depicted engaging in sexual acts with Osama Bin Laden. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was, among other things, waterboarded more than 180 times in a single month.

In the case of al-Katani, some people have asked whether his treatment really amounts to torture — after all, he wasn’t electrocuted, he didn’t have his teeth pulled out or needles inserted under his finger nails. As one interrogator’s motto has it, “No blood, no foul”. Doubts have also been expressed as to whether waterboarding qualifies as a torture – though some of those who have voiced this doubt have revised their opinion after putting their money where their mouth is and voluntarily submitting to the procedure. What from a distance seems to be merely an unpleasant yet controlled experience is unbearably distressing when you’re strapped down with a towel over your face and water being poured onto that — as Christopher Hitchens will tell you.

Among all the moral and legal debates over the use of coercive interrogation techniques, and whether they add up to torture, the contribution of science has been overlooked. Yet psychologists and neuroscientists have much to say about the effect of various forms of ill-treatment, including those we recognise as obvious physical torture. I write about some of this work in a feature article in this week’s New Scientist magazine, which you can check here, along with an associated editorial.

The long and short of this research is that a variety of psychological manipulations and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT) have similar, or worse, long-term effects on mental health as physical torture. If the immorality of torture depends on the consequences is has for human well-being, then there’s little scientific support to distinguish between torture proper and more justifiable, and less morally abhorent, forms of ‘torture-lite’ or ‘no-touch torture’ captured under the CIDT rubric.

There has also been an historical lack of scientific input about how to go about interrogations. Like advertising, interrogation has been touted as more of an art than a science (though social psychology would reject both of these diagnoses). Interrogation techniques have often developed in light of anecdotal evidence and have not been subject to scientific scrutiny.

Take the roster of techniques listed in the Army Field Manual. These are supposed, when administered according the Army’s guidelines, to be practically, legally and morally sound ways to get information out of detainees (though Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of a former interrogator in Iraq, suggest that there are in fact loopholes that would permit some inhumane treatments). Leaving aside the legal and moral issues for a moment, we can ask, “On what basis do we have reason to think that these techniques work?”.

Very little, it turns out. Colonel Steven Kleinman — an officer in the US Air Force Reserve, interrogation trainer and an outspoken advocate of interrogation reform — says that “the principles, strategies, and methods set forth in the Army Field Manual on interrogation have never been systematically and objectively reviewed for their efficacy” (personal communication). As such, Kleinman - who has served as an interrogator in three military campaigns (Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, and Iraqi Freedom) - argues that there is “vital need for true science to fill the massive gaps and correct the enduring myths/misunderstandings that surround the art of interrogation”. To address this shortcoming, Kleinman, working with an experimental psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist, has reviewed these techniques in a paper to be published in the Defense Intelligence Journal. In short, they argue that “much of the material in the field manual lacks scientific support and, in some cases, may actually be counterproductive”:
“An example of the former is the assertion that capture shock presents an ideal moment to question a prisoner, allegedly because the trauma of capture will cause them to be less security conscious. Science demonstrates that people experiencing such trauma have difficulty in attending to questions or directions and often provide thoughtless answers. In addition, their ability to recall events accurately is severely diminished. As for the latter, the use of the approach known as Pride and Ego-Down (essentially belittling the prisoner in the expectation that he will answer questions in order to defend himself and his ego) will likely increase resistance, especially among members of ethnic groups (where under such emotional challenges and humiliation the individual feels a stronger bond with other members of the in-group and more disconnected from — and defiant toward — members of the out-group.)”
Such approaches are not the only ones available for carrying out interrogations, as Kleinman argues:
“We have a rich history of conducting interrogation correctly. The MIS-Y program in World War II focused on high-level German and Japanese military officers and government officials. The individuals selected to serve in this program were college educated, talented linguists, and intimately familiar with the cultural background of the prisoners they encountered. Rather than employing force, these interrogators used a host of stratagems and gambits that involved a culturally relevant relationship-building approach augmented by meticulous research that often gave the interrogator the appearance of possessing far more knowledge about the enemy than he really did. The result was a prisoner who no longer viewed the interrogator as an enemy and who was convinced that there was no need to protect information that he believed was already known to the interrogator.”
These historical considerations, along with the near-total absence of scientific support for more coercive approaches to interrogation, have led Kleinman and others to argue for a new approach to gaining information from human sources. For instance, in a paper written with Randy Borum, a terrorism expert at the University of South Florida, and Michael Gelles, a military psychologist, Kleinman has sketched out a new paradigm for “educing information” from detainees, one that draws on insights from social psychology and negotiation theory — and which would mark a return to the kinds of historically successful interrogation techniques Kleinman alludes to, but this time based on real-world data of efficacy.

Finally, Kleinman raises a number of cost-effectiveness issues that result from poor techniques for gathering intelligence information:
“If there is a bottom line, it is this: the U.S. Intelligence Community has an annual budget that exceeds $65 billion, with a substantial portion of that funding invested in research to support new generations of technical intelligence collection. At the same time, the U.S. Government has not sponsored true research into the art of interrogation since 1956 (discounting the misguided research by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s that involved drugs and hypnosis). The actual cost of a robust research agenda to develop a new generation of interrogation doctrine — one that is not only operationally effective, but also reflects the highest legal and moral traditions of the nation and is respectful of human rights —would be comparatively small (perhaps .001 percent of the annual Intelligence Community budget). The potential returns, however, could be nothing short of extraordinary. First, the small wars (e.g., counterterrorism and counterinsurgency) are intelligence-driven wars in which human intelligence — and especially interrogation — play an irreplaceable role. Research could facilitate much greater operational effectiveness and, as a result, higher quality and more timely intelligence information to drive policies and plans. Second, by refining methods toward the twin goals of both operational effectiveness AND respect for human rights, we may begin to 1) respond to the myriad challenges with far greater knowledge of the adversary and the nature of the conflict itself and 2) reverse the enduring strategic consequences of sponsoring a program that has involved the employment of coercive methods and instead begin to comport ourselves in a manner more consistent of our self image as a nation of laws and champion of human rights.”
All of which suggests that you don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to oppose abusive treatment of terrorist suspects or insurgents, though a concern for basic moral standards will augment your case. A simple concern for national security, and a desire to spend money effectively in combating future terrorist attacks and, gets you to the same destination.

(Many thanks to Col. Kleinman for providing these illuminating comments, and, more importantly, for his continued role in trying to reform current interrogation practices.)