Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
By Shane O’Mara | Harvard University Press | $56.95
Imagine the storyline for a TV political drama – something like The West Wing or House of Cards.
It goes like this. The United States is attacked by terrorists, who kill thousands of civilians. With the nation under extreme stress, the president adopts extreme measures. He approves the torturing of suspects to gain information needed to prevent further attacks. He’s advised and supported by legal scholars. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and domestic and international law are brushed aside. But there’s a twist – a scriptwriter’s in-joke: some of those advocating the effectiveness of torture do so not because of any scientific evidence that it works, but because they’ve seen it work in another piece of TV fiction, 24.
It’s a scenario that might once have appealed to fantasists and conspiracy theorists. Trouble is, the storyline doesn’t come from a fictitious TV series. It’s a broad summary of how the world’s most powerful democracy came to adopt torture as a matter of state policy. In the process, it trashed its reputation, corrupted its institutions, gave a new grievance to its enemies, and caused massive suffering to the tortured – and untold moral and psychological harm to the torturers. And it didn’t work.
It didn’t work, or not in the way that advocates said it would, because proponents of torture didn’t know, and didn’t try to find out, what torture does to the brains and mental processes of those subjected to it. It breaks its victims, and can even kill them. Some will confess to anything, just to end the pain.
But if the aim of torture is to get a suspect to promptly and accurately recall and coherently relate details of, say, a terrorist’s ticking time bomb, it’s a failure. This is the conclusion reached by Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, in Why Torture Doesn’t Work.
O’Mara’s focus is not on the ethical or moral dimensions of torture, though on those grounds alone he opposes it. His focus is on the science. He judges it solely on the justification advanced by pro-torturers – that it achieves results and will save lives. Tortured terrorists talk, and talk fast, and what they say is coherent and credible, or so we’re told. Yet the scientific evidence, backed by accounts from those subjected to it and those who’ve inflicted it, shows that it fails completely on its own terms.
President George W. Bush approved torture as the United States responded to the 9/11 attacks. He was supported by a series of legal opinions – the so-called Torture Memos – from the government’s senior legal advisers. All of them advised that the government could torture without breaking the law. It helped that they said the methods being applied weren’t torture, that they were simply “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The proponents of torture assumed the techniques would work. Among the legal advisers was deputy assistant attorney-general John Yoo, these days a law professor. He had no doubt about the effectiveness of torture: “It works, we know it does. The CIA says it does and the vice-president says it does.” (Torture also had its supporters in Australian academia.)
On such flimsy evidence, little more than folklore and wishful thinking, the torturers went to work. And some of them did indeed draw inspiration from 24, the TV series about a counterterrorism agent with an ends-justify-the-means approach. It was hugely popular among the Americans at Guantanamo Bay and it gave interrogators lots of ideas.
The US was not the first Western democracy to use torture. The French did it on a large scale in their Algerian colony up to the early 1960s. The British used it in Northern Ireland, subjecting nationalist prisoners to the so-called Five Techniques – starvation, sleep deprivation, exposure to continuous “white noise,” hooding, and stress positions. There was an unspoken sixth technique – beatings – for prisoners who wouldn’t comply.
The Americans used similar techniques, and more, eventually going beyond even what the Torture Memos permitted. In one case a prisoner was interrogated for approximately twenty hours a day for seven weeks, strip searched in the presence of women, forced to wear women’s underwear, forcibly injected with large quantities of intravenous fluid and forced to urinate on himself, led around on a leash, made to bark like a dog, and subjected to cold temperatures. Waterboarding – a process that creates the perception of drowning – was common.
Some prisoners were subjected to rectal infusions – in one case a pureed mixture of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins. It’s hard to disagree with O’Mara when he says this process was solely applied for “retributive or even sadistic purposes.”
O’Mara shows that these techniques have disastrous effects on the mental processes on which memory depends. This is crucial. The interrogator wants the person being tortured to remember things. Where is the bomb? When is it timed to explode? Who are your co-conspirators? Yet what we know about how memory works shows that, instead of facilitating memory function and enhancing recall, extreme stress impairs them.
O’Mara cites a US study involving special forces soldiers who were subjected to prisoner-of-war conditions. Being deprived of food and sleep and subjected to extreme temperatures caused “grave memory deficits” – the soldiers could not recall information they had learned as part of the exercise – even though they had no reason not to give the information to their interrogators. And these were elite soldiers, extremely fit and trained to withstand stress. In O’Mara’s words, they showed “a profound decrement in memory after being exposed to substantial and sustained stressor states.”
Other research reinforces the finding that prisoners interrogated under extreme stress, threat and anxiety are not capable of recalling specific memories. What these techniques do is activate that part of the brain directed solely at survival; other brain functions, including memory, are suppressed. A prisoner being tortured will be left, writes O’Mara, “incapable of saying much that is useful.”
The pro-torture argument contains a deep contradiction – the belief that sleep deprivation, for instance, will reduce prisoners’ ability to think on their feet but also motivate them to talk. The interrogator wants the prisoner to think, yet the torturer’s actions reduce the victim’s capacity to do so. Instead of aiding memory, the treatment induces amnesia. This “surreal undercurrent” in the torturer’s argument, says O’Mara, “requires an internal logic that is not based on reason and evidence.”
Sleep deprivation is usually applied in combination with other techniques, including waterboarding. In this ancient torment, the prisoner is tied to an inclined bench, a cloth is applied to the face and water is poured over the cloth. It causes the perception of suffocation and panic – victims feel they are drowning and experience the dread of imminent death.
While being subjected to this stress, prisoners are asked to search their memories for details of specific events, places and people. American records cited by O’Mara revealed prisoners who were rendered completely unresponsive, vomiting and suffering involuntary spasm, by waterboarding. O’Mara, a neuroscientist, is conducting preliminary research that simulates the effects of waterboarding; not surprisingly, his findings suggest that waterboarding has a negative impact on recall.
Yet what of the scenario favoured by the torture advocates – the ticking time bomb, set to go off in an hour with catastrophic consequences? Does torture work then? The answer is: especially not then. O’Mara concludes that there’s probably no technique able to apply sufficiently severe pain to a well-prepared individual that would cause him or her to reveal information in the minutes and seconds required. Apply too much pain, and the prisoner goes into shock and can’t tell you anything.
In any case, we know that the US, in reality, hasn’t been faced with any ticking bombs. Instead, the evidence about the interrogations reveals prisoners subjected to weeks and even months of torture that provided no useful intelligence.
The fact that torture has the opposite effect to what’s intended suggests to O’Mara that those who devised the American program and gave it legal cover either didn’t consult medical professionals or ignored their advice. Had they been consulted, they would have advised against this regime of “surprising cruelty.” Nor do the interrogators and their authorisers appear to have consulted their own imaginations and considered how they think and act when they’re simultaneously tired, hungry and cold. Like O’Mara, we can only look on, appalled, at their profound lack of empathy.
O’Mara concludes that the predictions of the Torture Memos failed utterly and predictably because they were based on theories that lacked any knowledge of psychology or neuroscience. “Rather,” he writes, “they are founded on an evidence base that involves consulting the contents of one’s own consciousness.” In other words, proponents of torture believe it works because they believe it works.
Importantly, O’Mara also looks at what torture does to the torturer. Applying torture is not easy; it is “stressful for all but the most psychopathic.” The evidence is that it mentally wounds the torturer. Many clearly suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, ending up shell-shocked, dehumanised, and covered in shame and guilt.
No such psychiatric price seems to have been paid by people further up the chain of responsibility. We don’t know if any of the law professors and op-ed writers who sought to make torture respectable feel any pangs of conscience for advocating methods that were largely banned when Barack Obama came to office.
O’Mara concludes that the policy process and the rationale that lead the US on such a disastrous course of action, based on little more than intuition and myth, would be hilarious if they were not so appalling.
If that was appalling, what are we to make of Donald Trump’s views on the matter? “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” the Republican candidate has declared. When asked about former CIA director Michael Hayden’s comment that the military might defy what it regards as unlawful orders to torture or kill civilians, Trump said, “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.”
Had such lines been uttered in a fictitious TV series just a year ago, you wouldn’t have believed it. •