Former Interrogators, Psychologists Join to Study the Effectiveness of Torture
Torture does not yield reliable information and is actually counterproductive in intelligence interrogations. This was the conclusion released by retired senior military interrogators and research psychologists during a press conference at Georgetown University.
The group released the preliminary findings of a research seminar held over the weekend at Georgetown University to consider the psychology of torture. The seminar included retired senior military interrogators and research psychologists from diverse fields.
According to a statement released by the group, popular assumptions that torture is effective conflict with the most successful methodologies of interrogation as well as with fundamental tenets of psychology.
“We need to look at those assumptions as scientists,” Fathali Moghaddam, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, said at the press conference. “Torture is based on outmoded behaviorist ideas. Threats may change overt behavior, but it is naïve to assume that threats make a person tell the truth.”
Psychologists in brain science, cognitive psychology, and social psychology have come to appreciate the inherent complexity of human thought, emotion, and action. It has been shown that people not only operate independently of rewards and punishments but often in direct opposition to them.
The group’s preliminary report states that, under torture, the innocent are apt to fabricate. And those with useful information and training to resist interrogation are apt to alter information or present carefully rehearsed lies instead.
“With torture, we can not know if we are getting a truthful response or a response to end torture,” said Ray Bennett, a former senior military interrogator speaking under an assumed name to protect his identity.
The interrogators participating in the research have conducted interrogation and other human intelligence operations in various military operations, including Vietnam, Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the ongoing war in Iraq. They maintained that, even in the most urgent situations, torture can not be considered a viable option. The involuntary circumstances of the disclosure would compromise the integrity of the information obtained. According to the psychologists participating in the group, decades of research into directly relevant topics such as social influence, stress, cultural and religious identification, false confessions, and interpersonal relationships point to the same conclusion.
The group’s report also discusses the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb is tortured in a race to save lives. According to interrogators in the group, a terrorist would know that he only has to keep his secret until the bomb detonates—a time period known to him but not to the interrogators. Moreover, the torture would offer the terrorist a prime opportunity to deceive interrogators by falsely naming bomb locations of difficult access.
“In my many years of interrogation,” Bennett said at the press conference, “I haven’t met an interrogator who has encountered this type of situation.”
During the weekend seminar, the group also discussed the role of cooperation during interrogation. The group’s report notes that, according to interrogators: “Fear can easily turn to anger, which may escalate to the point that the interrogator cannot re-establish emotional control of the situation. The interrogator then loses all possibility of cooperation from the detainee.”
Interrogators, however, consider cooperation as “crucial to the goal of trustworthy information,” the group reported. Severe stress and injury may also impair the mental ability of the detainee to provide accurate information, added interrogators at the seminar.
The study group was sponsored by the Georgetown University Department of Psychology, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. The group plans to continue its joint examination of the relative effectiveness of coercive and non-coercive interrogation methodologies. Its findings will be shared with international professional associations in the field of psychology, and policy makers.