This research aimed to provide insight on an important problem: the effectiveness of interrogational torture in revealing clear and accurate information to the state. There is little consensus among policy makers, academics, or even interrogators on whether interrogational torture works. This article examines whether torture is effective in revealing reliable information and at what cost in terms of frequency and intensity of the torture employed, even under limited conditions and with certain restrictions in place. Due to the absence of any reliable and systematic data from either the field or laboratory on the effectiveness of torture, Schiemann investigates the question theoretically by employing the tools of game theory.
Game theory allows Schiemann to build an analytical model of restricted, limited interrogational torture incorporating realistic elements and corresponding to what one might call the pragmatically normative view of interrogational torture: that “limited” or “restrained” torture is unfortunately necessary in limited cases. This allows Schiemann to compare the outcomes of the analytical model with the criteria defining the normative model of interrogational torture’s proponents. The model’s outcomes substitute for empirical data that we will likely never have to assess torture’s effectiveness.
In the first section, Schiemann outlines his normative model of pragmatic interrogational torture. The point of this model is to first identify constraints on the use of torture in interrogations, and second, the anticipated consequences of employing interrogational torture, including the expected reliability of the information gathered and the degree to which torture is employed. Together, they define how torture should work on the pragmatic view. The second section develops two variants of an analytical model of interrogational torture that is consistent with both the constraints of the normative model and other real-world features of interrogational torture to see how torture would work. Obviously, if data was actually available one could assess how torture does work. The third section presents the results of the analytical model and compares them to the predictions of the normative model, with the goal being to see if the outcomes of the analytical model support or undermine the normative model. Finally, Schiemann concludes in the last section by discussing some implications for state-sanctioned interrogational torture.
In Schiemann’s model, there are three players in the game, depicted in Figure 1: nature, a detainee, and an interrogator for the state. The nature player is game theoretic convention for modeling uncertainty about other players in the game, in this case about the characteristics of the detainee and the characteristics of the interrogator. The interrogator is uncertain whether the detainee is knowledgeable and weak, knowledgeable and strong, or possesses no information (innocent). The knowledgeable and weak detainee is willing to give up information in exchange for not being tortured, while the knowledgeable and strong detainee prefers to suffer torture rather than give up information. The innocent detainee has no valuable information to divulge. The uncertainty about exactly which detainee is actually facing the interrogator is captured by the first move of the game, by nature, dividing it into three branches.
Schiemann concludes that the outcomes of the analytical model provide little support for the pragmatic defense of interrogational torture. The outcome predicted by the pragmatic defenders of interrogational torture – valuable information extracted by (the threat of) torture from a knowledgeable detainee but no torture to innocent detainees – does not occur in equilibrium. For torture to ever generate valuable information, the state must be willing to torture innocent detainees. Furthermore, this “ever generate” is not the same as “reliably generate,” despite coming at the cost of torturing innocents. An outcome resulting in valuable information is possible, but the conditions supporting it are empirically unlikely. They require a knowledgeable detainee to believe the promise he will not be tortured if he divulges information and an interrogator to be very confident the detainee has told all he knows. Moreover, even when these conditions are met, interrogational torture fails to satisfy the necessary reliability condition.
The question of whether interrogational torture is effective in providing valuable information to the state is ultimately an empirical question that cannot be conclusively decided by a game theoretic (or any other) model. However, formal models can be helpful tools for probing reality. Examining if – in reality – interrogational torture actually provides the state with vital information they could otherwise not get – and at what human cost – is a pressing moral question of our time. The debate over this question implies that this reality needs probing, and the probing Schiemann offers here suggests that torture games have no winners.
Schiemann, J. W. (2012). Interrogational torture or how good guys get bad information with ugly methods. Political Research Quarterly, 65 (1), 3-19.