The evidence that torture “works”
If the CIA made drinks commercials…
This week’s release by the Obama administration of further details of the CIA’s interrogation policies under Bush-Cheney has triggered a renewed debate about whether or not torture “works”. Some people argue that torture is pointless because the person undergoing it will tell whatever lies they think you want to hear in order to get the torture to stop.
But it seems to me that this is only a problem if you’re concerned about extracting evidence that is accurate and truthful. If what you’re really after is information that is simply going to be politically useful, then the War on Terror surely gives us ample evidence that torture does, indeed, work.
To take just one example, in February 2003, US secretary of state Colin Powell announced disturbing evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. An unnamed ‘senior terrorist operative’ had told US interrogators that Iraq had offered chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda members over a number of years. One high-ranking militant had allegedly visited Iraq several times, ‘for help in acquiring poisons and gases’.
This was clearly useful information – it added weight to US government claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda at a time when the Bush administration was working hard to build public support for its invasion of Iraq. By strengthening the idea that the Iraqis were on the same side as the people who had carried out 911, the information also helped win a tacit acceptance of the use of torture by US forces in Iraq itself, at places like Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama and Forward Operating Base Tiger.
It subsequently emerged that the ‘terrorist operative’ who’d been the source of this information, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, had made his WMD claims after being subjected to freezing temperatures and controlled drowning (aka “waterboarding”). In November 2005, CIA sources told ABC News that they had concluded that Libi ‘had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment’.
Clearly, in this case, the information extracted through torture was neither true nor accurate, but it did nonetheless help the Bush administration to persuade Americans that Iraq was implicated in 911, and that the 2003 invasion was therefore necessary and justified.
If governments are forbidden to torture people who might be in a position to yield such “useful” (albeit false) information, then we’re depriving them of a vital tool for justifying controversial policies that might otherwise meet intractable public opposition. Had the US government not been able to use torture in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, then it would have been incapable of producing much of the key intelligence suggesting that Iraq had WMD and was linked to Al Qaeda.
In fact, it seems possible that without the use of torture-intelligence, the political campaign would have been impossible to get off the ground and that the invasion itself, with all that it entailed, would therefore never have happened. The consequences of such a grim scenario for a whole range of US and UK companies – from Halliburton and Blackwater to Aegis and BAE - seem barely imaginable.