Interrogation and Torture

The contents of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report into the CIA’s use of torture in interrogation make grim reading, not least because it doesn’t appear to have worked in any significant way.  It so happens that, back when I was serving in the regular Army, I trained as an interrogator on the course that was, back then at least, regarded as pretty much the ‘gold standard’ amongst western intelligence agencies.

As you might expect, there was some discussion about the utility of torture and physical ‘pressures’ and the broad consensus was that they were not as useful as is often imagined.  In any case, the point was moot: we Brits didn’t use it and we weren’t about to start.  What we did seek to do was apply psychological pressure to start a dialogue which could deliver information which we could analyse and collate.  A detailed interrogation can be a slow process and I’m not sure that torture would speed it up very much.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example:

Mr X is a suspected terrorist and a suspected associate of Mr Y – who is believed to be a senior member of the same organisation – with some knowledge of his intentions.  We have Mr X at our interrogation centre and we’ve wired up his testicles to our torture machine.  It happens that we know very little about Mr Y, including what he looks like, but we’re keen to know.

‘OK X, I need a detailed description of Y.  Everything you know’

‘Fuck off, I’m not talking’

‘Don’t give me that attitude or I’ll hurt you’



‘You don’t want me to do that again, do you?’

‘Aaargh! No! Please don’t!’

‘So what colour is his hair?’

‘He has purple hair’

‘Purple eh? You’re lying!’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, OK, it’s green!’

‘So it’s green, is it?  You just told me it’s purple’


‘Aaaaaaaaargh!  It’s purple, it’s purple!’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No, I’m not sure, I’ve actually never met him’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, I did meet him’

Etcetera etcetera.

In other words, people being tortured will tell you what they think you want them to say, if you give them enough clues.  If you don’t, they’ll just try stuff out.  It may be accurate or it may not, but that doesn’t really make any difference because none of it is intelligence yet, it’s just information that needs to be checked against other sources, and that will take time.

But also, and this is quite important, if Mr X was who we thought he was and did know important information and was fully committed to his cause, every time you hurt him you remind him that he is your enemy and you are his, and that it is never going to be in his long-term interest to help you.

As an interrogator, I would, from time to time, attend the lectures on an annual ‘combat survival tour’ that was organised for the UK Military.  Typically, this involved American former prisoners of the North Vietnamese talking about their experiences attempting to evade capture and then in captivity.  The ordeal that these men went through, over many years for the most part, was wretched.  Torture was frequent – sometimes a daily event – and sustained.  Many – if not most – of these men did give away information, although for the most part it was of a fairly trivial nature by the time they ‘broke’ (the military, like intelligence and, indeed, terrorist organisations, try to compartmentalise information so few individuals know enough to cause serious damage).  However, the conditions in which they were held and the horrors they were subjected to left them in no doubt that they should not be helping their captors and, as far as possible, it seems they tried to return to first principles during every torture session, giving away only the ‘Big Four’ – name, rank, number and date of birth – until their pain became unendurable.  Their courage and fortitude was beyond heroic – one of the reasons the US Military gets very upset by false claims of Vietnam POW status.

There is a lesson to be learned here.  I would not put Al Qa’eda terror suspects in the same moral universe as the Vietnam POWs but I have little doubt that in their own minds, most of these angry, sexless thugs think exactly that: that they are heroic warriors fighting for a just cause.  I wonder how much mistreatment by the CIA helped to fortify them and strengthen their resolve to resist.  There can be little doubt that many of them were ‘true believers’.

The reality is that good intelligence is usually a gradual process of building up a picture from a multitude of different sources, of which interrogation is one.  The general view when I was trained, and subsequently as a practitioner, was that an induced state of anxiety, disorientation and isolation was pretty much as effective as torture in getting a prisoner to talk, and that this could be done through psychological pressure without resorting to violence.  A weak prisoner is likely to start talking if he thinks he’s going to be tortured without the need to actually do it.  These pressures aren’t a pleasant experience – I’ve been through it in training – but they don’t kill or maim people.

I personally think that one of the key weapons which will defeat Islamic fundamentalism is the moral superiority of the plurality of those who oppose it, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, secular or whatever, and what the Senate Intelligence Committee has told us today suggests that, for a time, the CIA gave up that superiority.  How can we now claim that we are better than they are?

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