Morality National Security The War on Terrorism

Does Torture Work?

Lt-Col Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo:

Torture may result in reliable information — no question about that. But is torture reconcilable with our basic humanity or with America’s desire to be an example to the rest of the world? The answer is no. Torture, however you define it, is wrong, appalling, immoral.

While the overall point Vandeveld is making – that America should not torture – is one I would expect, his initial hedging – “Torture may result in reliable information” surprised me. Aside from top-level political appointees, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anyone in the military in fields related to interrogation acknowledge that torture might work. And many spoke out against it.

What I’ve seen more of are comments like that of “Matthew Alexander” – a pseudonym used to protect the interrogator’s identity. He was one of the interrogators whose information led to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He wrote:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I’m still alarmed about that today.

I’m not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me – both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn’t work. [my emphasis]

This refrain comes up again and again among interrogators. Most of the public debate though has been driven by people like Senator John McCain and Captain Ian Fishback opposed torture for moral reasons.


The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.


…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.

This should be our primary reason for opposing torture. But a secondary reason is that most interrogators have stated that it simply doesn’t work if your goal is to get quality information from detainees. Most torture techniques were designed as punishment or to elicit confessions – not to get information. For example, the techniques we use were used by the Soviets to get confessions for show trials and the North Vietnamese for propaganda videos.

Most experts seem to acknowledge that torture is good for one thing – breaking down a person’s will, perhaps driving them insane, and forcing them to agree with the torturer. This is what has happened in America’s torture program – as detainees confessed to things they did not do and gave information about connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that Americans wanted to know about but did not exist.

Whether or not torture works is a secondary question – but an important one nevertheless.

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