My colleague Chris Preble sketches out some of the moral pitfalls that come with authorizing torture in his post. Beyond that, history shows that utilitarian claims that torture has enhanced our safety are also mistaken.
While torture can in some instances provide valid intelligence, it can also produce false information motivated only by a desire to end suffering. Successful interrogators from World War II to the modern day have used rapport and psychology, not brutality, to get inside the heads of their enemies.
The Air Force interrogator who helped bag Abu Musab al Zarqawi, writing under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, says that the difference between an interrogator and a used car salesman is that the interrogator has to abide by the Geneva Conventions. No torture there, and a good read to boot.
This theme is echoed in Kyndra Rotunda’s book Honor Bound:
I knew one CITF agent and one FBI agent who were Muslims, and both knew how to coax the truth from detainees’ lips. One word captures their effective, secret ingredient to successful interrogations — patience. They each spent hours visiting with the detainee, sharing tea, bringing gifts of dried fruits, and talking endlessly about family, Allah, and the Quran.
This should come as no surprise, since it is a repackaging of the techniques of World War II interrogator Hanns Scharff, “Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe.” Scharff treated downed Allied pilots humanely, gaining their trust and sympathy while gleaning significant information about Allied air power and advance warning of the D‐Day landing. The Allies wanted to prosecute him after the war for interrogating their pilots so effectively, but dropped the charges when they couldn’t substantiate him so much as raising his voice. He came to the United States after the war and did mosaic art work at Walt Disney World.
So color me unsurprised when a former FBI supervisory agent says that we gained actionable intelligence by traditional interrogation techniques, and that torture backfired on us.
The release of memoranda authorizing torture will help prevent the U.S. from ever traveling this dark path again. The U.S. has consistently taken the moral high ground in armed conflicts, contrasting our behavior with the savagery our enemies engaged in for decades. The historical record shows that mercy, not might, is the key to successful interrogation.