Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate


Hot on the heels of the Abu Ghraib incident, Mark A. Costanzo and Ellen Gerrity took a qualitative look the circumstances and results of torture. Early on, the point was raised on how do you collect data on torture. In fact, that point was made several times throughout the article in what appeared to be a bid to highlight the issue of conducting scientific research on what they call “one of the most extreme forms of human violence.” To codify this, the report used the United Nations definition of torture that states that any act that causes severe suffering or pain (mental or physical) with the intent to extract information and is executed under the authority of a public official is torture. 

That aside, they did pull from many different studies concerning problems from coerced information. One instance they looked at was in law enforcement and the confessions pulled from suspects via long interrogations and even less legal means. What they found was 24% of wrongful convictions came from false confessions that were gained via means far less detrimental than torture. Costanzo and Gerrity use this as a basis to show that information gained from torture would have a shadow cast upon its validity. Suspects in criminal cases were often kept awake and interrogated for hours on end until they had lost major cognitive control. They eventually just confessed to something that they had not done to make it stop. 

Greater parallels are draw versus prolonged law enforcement interrogations and torture. The report asked that any information that was gained in marathon interrogation was often false. Add in mental and physical pain and the probability of false information increases. Ulpian in 200 CE raised questions on the validity of information extracted under torture was suspect. Further evidence was provided from CIA operatives that people being tortured would be willing to confess anything, true or not, just to make the torture stop. 


This is a very well sourced article that draws from many different fields for the purpose of looking at something that is hard to study. After going through it, some of my ideas on torture are now not as justifiable. While I am very aware of intelligence professionals who state that the Arab culture is not conducive to normal methods of interrogation and that torture is necessary, the report stated that people who made use of torture attempt to justify it as a means of dismissing or allaying what they have done. I am by no means saying that supporters of torture are wrong or are falsely attempting to justify torture as a valid means of getting information out of someone. I have not been in a firsthand situation to see positive results from torture (and I rather hope I do not have to). It is when there has been nearly 2000 years of concerns as to the validity of torture for attaining actionable information that I start to have misgivings.


  1. The outlook that your authors have on torture somewhat remind me of my author's outlook. My author mentioned the method of sleep deprivation and indicated how torture and coercive interrogation can lead to false information, as well. It definitely made me think deeper about the effectiveness and justification of torture.

  2. It was one topic that was discussed in my undergrad with criminal justice and law of moral and ethical boundaries. Particularly on the law enforcement end it is a very grey area and line, and one of my Profs who ran cases affirms that people will eventually do anything to get out of a discomfortable situation. I would have to agree with the above authors that the validity of certain interrogation techniques decreases the reliability of information given. Which if taken at a police level can be unreliable, which means the step further of outright torture would be an exponential decline in information being given being reliable.

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  4. Ruark,
    Your summary was very thought provoking and I have to agree with a major point you addressed above. That being, when torture is implemented the chances of receiving false information drastically increases. From the studies presented, it does not seem that torture achieves the ultimate goal of retrieving valuable information.

  5. I agree with your comment, Chad. It seems that most of the articles posted on this topic essentially come to the same conclusions. While there is little doubt you will receive information from someone you torture, the reliability of that information is suspect at best.

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