Torture Research

Does Torture Work?

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For a good summary of the arguments on this point, and an explanation of why torture does not work, see Hajjar (2009) and Rejali (2007).  Hajjar (2009) also has a review of the literature on torture and a detailed analysis of the debate over torture in the “global war on terror.”

Hajjar, Lisa. 2009. “Does Torture Work? A Sociolegal Assessment of the Practice in Historical and Global Perspective.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 5: 311-345.

Rejali, Darius. 2007. Torture and Democracy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

What follows are my own views on why torture is not an effective intelligence strategy. There are several answers to the question, “Does torture work?”, depending on what you mean by “work.” Torture “works” quite well as part of a governmental strategy to control a population through terror, particularly when combined with extrajudicial executions, arbitrary imprisonment, and restrictions on free speech and political participation. Totalitarian countries of the past, and oppressive regimes of the present, use torture as one of a number of tools to keep their citizens terrified and acquiescent.

As a means of gathering accurate information about criminal, military, or terrorist activity, torture is a failure. It fails for numerous reasons:

1. Torture is slow. In the movies, torture works almost instantly, at least for the “good guys.” After a captive resists normal interrogation techniques, the hero beats, threatens, or otherwise tortures the prisoner, at which point he instantly breaks and gives the information desired. This is not true in reality. Evidence from both torturers and victims demonstrates that it takes multiple sessions before a prisoner breaks, and some prisoners never break at all. “Ticking bomb” scenarios depend on the assumption that torture will get quick results where normal interrogation methods will take too long – but this assumption is false.  Both tendencies create a flood of inaccurate information that overwhelms intelligence agencies and take their attention away from real leads.

2. Torture produces false information. The worst practical problem with torture as a source of information is that people under torture will say anything they think their interrogators want to here, in order to make the torture stop. Prisoners who do know something will provide plausible but false information to both protect their comrades and make the torture stop; prisoners who don’t know anything will make up information to make the torture stop. Both tendencies create a

3. Using torture makes other methods of intelligence gathering less effective. Police and soldiers working against terrorists and insurgents need, above all, a network of voluntary informants –people loyal to their side, neutrals who inform for monetary rewards, or former enemies who change sides to avoid punishment. As Rejali demonstrates, and my own studies of the Philippine War confirm, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism struggles only succeed where intelligence agencies succeed in recruiting a voluntary intelligence network. Torture is a poor substitute for information given voluntarily, and forces that use torture frighten away people who might otherwise cooperate.

4. Torture trades illusory short-term tactical gains for real, long-term strategic losses. Even if torture did produce useful intelligence, it still isn’t a good strategy for a democratic country fighting insurgents or terrorists, because of the reaction it inspires. We have seen this in the Bush administration’s use of torture in the “global war on terror.” Torture has shocked our allies and lessened their support; torture alienates neutrals, and news reports of torture are an invaluable tool for al-Qaeda recruiters. Despotic governments can use torture against conquered populations, or even their own civilians, with less fear of these negative results. As they are already hated anyway, their only goal is to become more feared. A democratic country, seeking to influence other countries through moral leadership, can never torture, as torture turns all of our democratic ideals into hypocrisies.


Written by tortureresearch

February 22, 2010 at 9:39 pm

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