I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.
When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.
In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.
Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).
Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!
In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.
In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.
I like the tags.
The best sentence I’ve seen on Trump so far is: “Trump is too gullible to be President”.
By saying that he is smart enough to know what he is doing you may be overselling his intelligence. I too initially thought that there is no way this guy can be that dumb. I have since changed my mind.
Although I have no academic credentials in the field I have been present at a number of interrogations conducted by different agencies, and have come to a number of conclusions, some of which may be considered self-evident. First, the word “agency” is key. Interrogators do not live in a vacuum. They are agents of a state, or an organisation, and ultimately of a society, or a community, which makes certain assumptions about the value, meaning and purpose of life. For example in a case which mirrored the methods described by Pablo for the US interrogation of Cuban suspects, the interrogators were rather ordinary young men who seemed to accept without question the values of their society. They were urgent, angry and consumed by a sense of their own, and others, mortality. They also failed, and were galled by that failure.
We sometimes talk about “the value of human life” as though it was a simple thing, defined a beating heart, a moving pair of lips and the passage of air through the lungs. In fact “the value of life” is a complicated concept which transcends the life or death of the body and permits human beings to take life and give life for the sake of life. The only way to explain this paradox is through the notion of the holy. So I contrast that first case with another case of an interrogator who was calm, patient, fatalistic and appeared genuinely unconcerned about the possible consequences of failure to obtain a result. As it happens, he was successful. He attained his object without employing violence and the suspects were quietly released back into the community. That approach would not have worked in every case. In other cases torture might have been more effective. But it would not have been right, and that interrogator took a view which stretched to eternity. He knew that people would die today, tomorrow and the next day. He knew that everyone dies someday and he accepted that. He was not insensitive to physical suffering, but neither was he driven by it, he was not consumed by it, and he did not accept it as a means to any end of his own. He believed that his ability to serve his own people depended on the will of God. He was a humble and pious person.
Look at the US interrogators of today, look at Donald Trump, and the cultural values of western modernism and you will see little in the way of either humility or piety. What takes place in the interrogation room, and the words spoken on political platforms, reflect the fundamental values of a wider society. Therein lies the source of the problem and its solution.