Torture works.

I have been working my way through a 47,000 document tranche of declassified US government communications related to Argentina and the “Dirty War” of 1976-83. I grew up in Argentina in the period leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup d’état that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reorganisation,” the euphemism that the military junta used to justify its actions. That was the period when I was politically socialised and which has marked my approach to politics ever since.

I also do so because I did human rights work in Argentina in the early 1980s and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Argentine state that required repeated primary source field research in the country throughout that decade. Those trips afforded me the opportunity to complement my human rights work with documentary and interview data that, while tangental to the dissertation, were central to my interest in what happened to people I knew who were caught up in the “Process.” I continued this interest as a sidebar to my academic work and official obligations while serving in and with US government agencies in the late 80s and early to mid 1990s. Even so, I did not have the time or authority to access what has emerged in this tranche of documents.

The documents (known as “cables” in diplomatic parlance) come from the CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Commerce Department that had involvement in Argentine issues during that period. The quality of the reporting and analysis is surprisingly good and the tone often brutally frank. Even so, thousands of pages in the declassified tranche are redacted or completely blank, attesting to ongoing sensitivity of some of the subjects being discussed. On a more personal level, the documents reveal the names of people that I knew while growing up, both embassy officials as well as private businessmen, school officials and missionaries (they were all men) who were fathers of kids that I went to school with and who either wrote the cables in question or served as informants to the embassy.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting is the constant references to the Argentine security forces use of murder and torture. Time and time again the cables detail how torture was used to extract information and confessions, often followed by the murder of prisoners. The cables report things such as corpse disposal techniques improving after scores of bodies were discovered in public places with clear signs of torture and execution-style bullet wounds (among others, the “disposal-via-plane” method–where prisoners were sedated, loaded onto Air Force planes and dumped over the South Atlantic away from shore–was perfected after weighed-down bodies surfaced in the River Plate and many others were identified on land even though efforts had been made to destroy any possibility of identification). They note that many of the dead were said to have been killed in armed confrontations with security forces that never happened, and that many of those killed were students, unionists, academics, journalists, politicians and others unconnected to the various guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP, primarily) that were operating at the time.

The more I read the more I began to question a long held belief of mine: that torture does not work as an interrogation method, but instead is simply a cruel form of punishment. Readers may remember that, following on earlier academic and policy writing on the subject, I blogged here at KP about how torture does not work. But as I read the horrific descriptions of the methods used by the Argentine inquisitors and what happened as a result, and even though I had interviewed a few torture survivors during my human rights work, it dawned on me that I was wrong. Torture does, in fact, work as a means of extracting time sensitive tactical as well as strategic information from victims. Allow me to explain.

Torture only works in specific circumstances. Where it does not work is in democracies with strong institutions and the rule of law. Take, for example, the US torture program known as “enhanced interrogation.” This was an extension of coercive interrogation techniques that US military counter-intelligence officers developed by adapting a blueprint provided by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) programs operated by the US military for personnel at high risk of capture in hostile territory. Those programs emulated the unpleasantness of foreign interrogations (say, by North Vietnamese) so that those going through the SERE programs would have the mental and physical ability to cope without breaking.

After 9/11 the CIA decided to turn SERE on its head and use it as a basis for enhanced interrogation of suspected jihadists. That in turn led to its use by the US military against jihadists and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Supervised by psychologists and medical doctors, techniques like water-boarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, painful binding by ropes, simulated executions and threatened electric shocks (where captives were hooked up by wires to car batteries or wall power outlets), simulated attacks by military working dogs (reportedly suggested by Israeli intelligence because of Arabs’ aversion to dogs) and sexual degradation were used by interrogators to try and extract both real-time and broad picture information from prisoners. The pictures that emerged from the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib–where US Army military police went rogue because of the environment created by their commanders–alerted the world to the fact that the US was routinely employing torture as an interrogation method, something that also occurred at detention facilities at Baghram Military Air Base in Kabul and in at the detention centre (Camp X Ray) operated by US Marines at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This stopped when the Obama administration took office.

There were limits to what the US torturers would do. Deaths, rapes and other atrocities did occur but the overall thrust of US torture programs was to avoid such “excesses” and to remain within the broadly defined limits of US military codes of justice and the laws of war. It can be argued whether that in fact happened, but the point is that the US military, the CIA and the US government all wanted to give at least the appearance of norm adherence and legal cover. This forced the interrogators to engage in self-limiting strategies when it came to the treatment of prisoners, even if the boundaries of that self-limitation were broad. They were constrained by both the institutional and legal apparatus under which they operated and perhaps by their internalisation of cultural mores and norms regarding acceptability and limits to what can be done in defence of the State’s interests.

Whatever the reason for the relative self-limitation of the US torturers, the end result is that, rightwing apologist’s bluster to the contrary, limited “actionable” intelligence was obtained via the enhanced interrogation program (this was detailed in the Congressional Report on the matter).

Bottom line? Torture does not work when practiced by agents of modern democratic states with strong institutions and laws and a concern for human rights and civil liberties even when dealing with foreign enemies.

No such thing happened during the “Dirty War.” There were no limits set on what interrogators could do to prisoners other than what their consciences dictated. Moreover, the torturers were required to observe each other’s work, to include murdering people, so as to cement the bonds of group complicity (presumably in the hope of securing group silence in future years). The barbarity unleashed on suspects was medieval, modern and mind-bending in its depravity. The interrogators used flame, electricity, water, blunt, bladed and teethed tools, surgical instruments, pneumatic machines, vices and industrial presses. They removed body parts without anaesthesia for no medical purpose. They made captives perform grossly degrading acts and penetrated them with an assortment objects. They raped and sodomized both men and women alike and used animals to do so as well. They mutilated, tortured and murdered children, spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents in front of prisoners. There was simply nothing they would or could not do in pursuit of a confession and/or information about others. Worse yet, many of these evil beings still walk amongst us, either in exile or still in Argentina in spite of the various trials of officials implicated in the atrocities of the Dirty War.

Beyond the personal tragedies of those victimised, this is the saddest part: The torturer’s methods worked. Time and time again the US cables document Argentine security officials stating that prisoners identified other members of political resistance groups after “hard” interrogations. Time and time again the cables detailed how one by one “terrorist” cells were dismantled thanks to information gleaned from such interrogations. From the time the military took power on March 24, 1976 to the time of the Soccer World Cup held in Argentina in June-July 1978, tens of thousands of people vanished (some into exile) and levels of political violence declined from an average of half a dozen murders a day to near zero. Both urban and rural guerrilla groups were decimated and thousands of people disappeared. By the time the World Cup started under the watchful eyes of the junta and celebrity guests like Henry Kissinger, Argentina was once again at peace, even if it was the peace of the dead.

Two things stand out for me. First, why did the victims give up the names of comrades, friends, acquaintances and family rather than just accept the fact that they were going to die? Surely they must have known that they and the people tortured in front of them would not make it out alive, so why give the torturers what they wanted? All I can think is that while many people broke because of the physical horrors inflicted on them and hoped to escape death in their moment of agony, an equal number broke because they wanted to save the lives of their loved ones even if they knew that they would die and their loved ones or others would likely die anyway. Between desperation and pain, it seems that the captive’s minds searched for futile hope in the midst of darkness.

The second standout point is what made the torturers do what they did? There certainly was both individual and collective psychopathic behaviour involved (such as in the case of the infamous “Angel of Death” Lt. Carlos Astiz, later captured by the British in the first confrontation of the Falklands/Malvinas War), but it also appears that to reach the state of mind that they operated in they had to believe that a) democracy and human rights were useless concepts; b) the rule of law was no longer viable as a social construct; c) ideological enemies were sub-human; d) they were part of a greater good; e) morality was relative and the ends justified the means; f) they were inured to violence given the ongoing and escalating social conflict of the previous decade; g) they had impunity, both present and future; h) their cause was existential (in this case defence of the Catholic, capitalist, heterosexual, patriarchal and white-dominant parameters of Argentine society).

Which is to say, when unconstrained by democratic norms and (at least concern about) the rule of law, torture works. It works because once there is no limit to what torturers can do, their victims have only one–even if futile– hope to save themselves or others, and that is to talk. The democratic “variant” of torture simply cannot enter this realm unless the very values that underpin democratic socialisation are absent in the interrogator.

That explains why I was wrong about the utility of torture. I used to think that torture persisted because it was useful as a punishment that reminded potential victims of the costs of engaging in specific courses of action and thereby deterred them from doing so. I also thought that it involved sadistic pleasure on the part of desensitized socio- or pyschopathic perpetrators.

Now I believe that, along with both of these motives, torture persists throughout history because it is a useful interrogation method under specific conditions where democratic norms, values, institutions and legal codes do not apply. Since democracies have historically been a minority among world governance structures, this can explain the wide-spread use of torture to this day.

I am belabouring the obvious.

I will not go into how the Catholic Church and several democracies were active supporters of the Argentine dictatorship (including the US until Jimmy Carter was elected, and then after he was replaced by Ronald Reagan). Nor will I delve into how civil wars often see more atrocities committed than in foreign wars. What I will note is that when democracies begin to be corroded from within and respect for institutions and laws and basic norms about civility begin to be supplanted by partisanship, opportunism and treachery, then the slide into darkness has begun.

Perhaps that is what happened to the Bush 43 administration, and which may be happening now under Trump. Perhaps it is what led the French to go feral when trying to cling on to their colonial possessions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whatever the case there is one more thing to ponder. If a liberal democracy like New Zealand had anything to do with the extraordinary rendition and black site programs that the US ran as conduits into and locations for its “enhanced interrogation” efforts, then merely having strong institutions and respect for the rule of law is not enough to guard against complicity in torture when fear of “the other,” bureaucratic opportunism and security partner pressure is involved. That is a major reason why I am interested in reading the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (still delayed) report on whether New Zealand had anything to do with that part of the US “war on terrorism.”


  1. Shit that’s some dark stuff.

    I think it’s important not to shy away from it though so I thank you for covering it.

    Things like this is why I think democracy is so important and the “better” the form of democracy (more proportional, fairer media coverage, less gaming of the system (e.g. gerrymandering), efficient governance structures) the better it is for both that society and any other that it deals with.

  2. In addition to your accurate conclusions about democracy and the rule of law, there’s some that’s a bit of a combination of c), d),e), and I presume is meant to be h) (appears to be a typo) namely the failure to see individuals as ends, not merely means or as proxies of some group or idea. It’s different to just the ends justifying the means or seeing the victims as subhuman (although those two things are often part of it), it’s about the failure to acknowledge humans as ends in themselves. This failure or deliberate refusal is seen in ideologies of both the left and right, but is common to all regimes happy to use violence justified in the name of some greater good.
    It’s why I think not only does democracy and the rule of law need defending, but so does the ethos that unperpins human rights ethics. It’s an ethic under attack not just from the populist and nationalist right, and many on Marxist far left, but also a left in thrall to notions of group identity and ‘power’. Without believing in inherent dignity of each of us as human, even the shitty people that do appalling things, or are part of some group responsible for some historic injustice then someone will always be able to create an argument as to why the violence against those ‘those’ people is necessarily or warranted.

  3. Besides my personal reasons, my purpose in writing this post was to alert readers to the depravity that is unconstrained torture and to the fact that erosion of democratic values is at the origins of the slippery slope towards it in some societies.

    I believe that many Kiwis simply cannot comprehend the depths to which people can go in erstwhile civilized societies in order to defend their preferred way of life when they believe it is under dire threat and the democratic value system–laws, mores, norms and institutions–cannot do so (and rest assured, Argentines consider themselves to be very civilized). In a contemporary context where foundational democratic values are open to question in NZ and elsewhere, the issue of torture as an end state provides grounds to reflect on the conditions that led to and consequences of this state of affairs.

    Thanks Andrew, for spotting the typo. Fixed now.

  4. Whether or not torture occasionally works is neither here nor there. Torture is inimical to common law, and therefore will always be illegal in our jurisdiction.

  5. Sanctuary:

    You missed the point. Torture is practiced in democracies, whether one cares to admit it or not. The record on this is clear: the UK, France, Belgium, and the US have all used torture (and I suspect others have done so as well). That they do it against foreign opponents or colonial subjects in the main does not deter from the fact that they tend to engage in legal contortions in order to do so, and that the effectiveness of their interrogations was directly related to what lengths they would go to in order to violate ethical and legal norms (think UK in Northern Ireland, France in Algeria and Belgium in the Congo). As for “our jurisidiction,’ I cannot comment on whether such practices have ever occurred in NZ, but I will say stay tuned for the IGIS report on NZ involvement in the extraordinary rendition/black site program.

  6. Good post. Yep torture works. i also thought like you that it was more a punishment – as in – I don’t care what you say I’m going to do it anyway. It does get information for sure and I cannot escape the conclusion that the people that do this ARE deriving some pleasure from it. To torture by torturing someones loved ones is depraved and sadistic.

  7. Marty:

    I think that those who torture as representatives of democratic states do so in part because of their lack of exposure to democratic civic education, to include acceptance of the concept of inalienable human rights and the sanctity of the person (enshrined in the UDHR), to which can be added individual pathologies, ideological hatred, hyper partisanship and institutional pressure to conform to management mandates. The US Border Patrol a-holes who are incarcerating and mistreating undocumented migrants at this very moment, in conditions that at times appear to be mass torture, either are all psychopathic sadists abetted by their status as state agents or have become numb or indifferent to basic standards of humanity when it comes to “the other.” I am sure most of them go home to loving spouses and families, but the job has turned them to the dark side. I could go on about the process of “othering” under Drumpf but will simply reiterate that a break down in democratic values and norm consensus is at the root of why torture persists under (nominally) democratic rule.

  8. Orwell wrote that pacifists cannot accept the statement “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”, despite it being “grossly obvious.”
    Fascinating post Pablo. Torture obviously worked in Argentina in the late 70’s rooting out the pro socialist political resistance. Perhaps common people were prepared to accept that in the greater good. Comparing the 30,000 in the 70’s who died to Cambodia where 3m died around the same period would the outcome have been worse if ardent socialists had been allowed to take control due to a state unwilling to commit such violence? Would Britain and the Allies have won the second world war without that determination to use violence? Is torture ever justified?

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