[Redacted]: The Effectiveness of Enhanced Interrogation

"Our enemies act without conscience. We must not." -John McCain on the Senate's Interrogation Report



Let's talk about something light-hearted: torture.  Or rather, the effectiveness of interrogation and the so-called "enhanced interrogation" tactics used in the "War on Terror."  Yesterday, the U.S. Senate released its long-awaited report on an intensive investigation of some of the CIA's controversial intelligence gathering methods, water-boarding the most notorious among them. 

Overall, the Senate's report accuses the CIA of under-representing the number of enhanced interrogation cases and over-representing the amount and effectiveness of intelligence gathered from these cases.  Naturally, the CIA has taken issue with this report.  Whether the Agency misled the public, or the Senate has conducted a poorly-executed investigation is irrelevant to me.  Instead, I am far more concerned with the discussion on the effectiveness of the CIA's intelligence gathering methods.

Personally, I believe the techniques outlined in the Senate report (as summarized by NPR below) ride a fine line between torture and coercion.  These tactics included water-boarding (simulated drowning), stress positions, sleep deprivation, chaining subjects to the floor, and forced nudity.  True interrogation relies upon building trust between the subject and the interrogator.  If we think about an interrogation as a transaction, then the subject is trading information and cooperation for the promise of whatever the interrogator is offering.  Without this fundamental trust, the subject will have no reasonable expectation of anything in return for his or her cooperation, and will thus be far less likely to comply.  While not impossible to create under duress, I believe more positive means of gaining trust are more effective.

This is not to say all interrogations should be full of hugs and kittens.  However, the distinction between coercion (using pressure or negative influences to illicit compliance) and torture is critically important here.  Though some of these people at the wrong end of the CIA's interrogations are likely guilty of committing horrible crimes, this does not justify causing extreme suffering under the excuse of intelligence gathering.  Coercive tactics can be useful in obtaining information, but more positive means of encouragement are far more desirable.

In his book The Black Banners, Ali Soufan describes his time as an interrogator for the FBI.  Having personally spoken with and interrogated several high profile suspects, Soufan has seen first-hand that positive means of encouragement are far more effective at gaining trust than torture or methods which border on torture.  Soufan would often provide small gestures of respect designed to allow a subject to maintain his dignity.  These included showing genuine interest in the well-being of the subject's family or showing respect to his religion. 

According to Soufan, this method, when combined with classic techniques of information gathering, provided reliable and useful intelligence far more often than overly coercive means.  Under extreme duress, subjects tend to stop cooperating and will often tell the interrogator exactly what they want to hear, rather than what they need to know.  Simply put, information gained under extreme duress becomes vastly more unreliable and increases the likelihood that a subject will succeed in counter-interrogation methods.

However, proponents of enhanced interrogation methods argue that using only positive reinforcement to gather information is naive wishful thinking.  There is a compelling argument to be made that the type of people who typically find themselves in an interrogation room are not exactly nice people to begin with, and are unlikely to give up information simply by being respectful to them.  It is possible that more coercive methods could be effective, but only if there is a reasonable expectation from the subject's point of view that the unpleasant methods would end.  When enhanced interrogation begins to resemble outright torture (as in the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed being water-boarded 183 times) this expectation, and thus trust, begin to quickly break down.

In all, even if enhanced interrogation tactics were useful in such successes as finding Osama bin Laden, they are still almost useless in preventing widespread terrorism and extremism.  Education, social mobility, and large-scale economic investment in impoverished regions are among the best methods of such success.

TL/DR: "Enhanced interrogation," while maybe not outright torture, might not be all that effective anyway.


NPR Report on 5 Main Interrogation Tactics Under Question

Full Report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

The Black Banners Website