Torture Isn't Really About Information; It's About Revenge

Former Vice President Dick Cheney challenged the Senate report on the CIA's interrogation program on Meet the Press Photographer: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Defenders of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—what critics of those techniques call torture—have always argued that using them produces vital intelligence, and that’s why the U.S. government did so in the years after 9/11. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is one of the Bush administration officials who have publicly challenged the conclusions of the Senate report on the CIA interrogation program released last week. The program, which according to the report included sleep deprivation of up to a week, mock executions, waterboarding, beatings, and “rectal feeding,” was, Cheney says, valuable and “did in fact produce actionable intelligence that was vital in the success of keeping the country safe from further attacks.” The Senate report, on the other hand, he says, is “full of crap.”

One of the central ideas of psychology—one of the reasons we study it at all—is that human beings often do things for reasons other than the ones they say, because they’re either unaware of or unwilling to identify their real motivations. That idea may apply to harsh interrogation techniques as well. In 2009 the psychologists Kevin M. Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood published a paper (pdf) in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which they looked at a possible motivation for resorting to coercive interrogations besides stopping future terrorist attacks.

Carlsmith had done earlier research about punishment in a criminal context and found that, although people often cite utilitarian justifications for the penalties they’d like to see imposed on wrongdoers—deterring future criminals by showing them their potential fate, incapacitating someone so he does not commit future crimes—their actions are actually driven by “retributive principles.” It’s revenge, in other words, and the sense that bad actors should be punished.

The 2009 study looked at whether a similar dynamic applies to people’s attitudes toward interrogation methods. In the study, participants were presented with a fictional case study of “Ahmad Farid, a 26-year-old Afghani who had been detained by U.S. and Coalition forces in 2007 on suspicion of terrorist activities. Participants learned that at the time of capture, Farid was making his living by tending a small herd of goats.” Some participants were additionally told that Farid had “set numerous roadside bombs, attacked civilians who cooperated with Coalition forces, and participated in ambushes that killed four U.S. Marines.”

All the participants were presented with information telling them the likelihood that Farid had—and was withholding—information that might prevent lethal attacks on soldiers and innocent civilians. Some were told there was no chance Farid would provide such intelligence; some were told there was a 5 percent chance; some a 60 percent chance, and the rest a 95 percent chance. The participants were asked what sort of interrogation they would condone, from very mild (asking questions) to very severe (which could be “aversive, degrading, painful, and in some cases cause permanent physical and psychological scars”). They were also asked how effective they thought harsh interrogation methods were.

Carlsmith and Sood found that participants recommended harsher interrogation methods when they were told Farid was more likely to have valuable information. But they also recommended harsher interrogation methods if they were told he was guilty of violent attacks on U.S. soldiers and civilians, independent of how likely it was that he possessed valuable information. Interestingly, the effect was just as strong among participants who thought very harsh interrogation methods were ineffective as those who thought they worked. That would suggest that efficacy in getting information—and information itself—was beside the point for them.

Even if Carlsmith and Sood’s results are right, it doesn’t settle the debate about whether the CIA’s interrogation program was or wasn’t necessary. But if the Feinstein report turns out to be accurate, and no information of value actually came out of the extreme methods the CIA resorted to, then we’re left with the questions of why the program continued for as long as it did and why some of the methods used seemed almost gleefully sadistic. The idea that everyone involved felt, at some level, that it was a form of justice for attacks committed against Americans—the intelligence operatives and contractors who administered the interrogations, the public officials who approved and in some cases ordered them, the millions of Americans who say they have no problem with them—may help explain that.

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