One point here I’d like to make clear. I am firmly against institutional support for torture. I have no qualms stating that and think that torture at best should have institutional guards against its use. It is not clear that it is ever necessary to use it and there are reasons not to. However, I don’t think the utilitarian case can be effectively made against it, that is, that I think the historical record clearly shows that torture can be used to extract information. Blog neighbor Mr Kuznicki accuses me of not carefully reading his point of view on torture when I describe it as “ineffective”. His actual words (from a later post):

Along the way, Dr. Arrigo also supports the independent argument that I’ve been making, namely that torture tends to reveal a great deal more false but convincing information in addition to whatever truth happens to come out, and that, for this reason, it’s a bad informational bargain. [note: emphasis mine]

That’s a bit more nuanced objection than one normally finds, my characterization as “ineffective” is wrong where “a bad informational bargain”, oh no that’s just way way different. A complete misreading … or not. For to me that reads a lot like “ineffective”, doesn’t it? Alas, I’m a little unclear on the difference.

There are remain two problems here. One is that resistance movements in general have always reacted to capture of one of their members in a regime in which torture is utilized by quickly moving safehouses and scrubbing all contact with the captured member. Why? The most likely reason they do that is experience in the organization shows that if they don’t move quickly the captured person will “break” under “enhanced interrogation” and they and those to whom he/she was in contact are now at extreme risk. As a odd side note, I’d add that a book The Quiller Memorandum from my childhood, err, mispent youth of cold-war spy vs spy genre (except agent was deemed “reliable under torture” instead of “licensed to kill”) was quite interesting and psychological was quite good even if the later books in the series suffered for moving to the action side and away from the thoughtful end of the storyline arc. The point is if it was true that torture was so bad at giving information then such organizations, which do learn from experience, would stop moving after capture. They didn’t so it seems highly probable that torture from an experimental viewpoint on the victims side … works. So, to put it bluntly: If you think torture is ineffective, why do organizations when facing an opponent who uses torture in an assymmetric struggle always have to quickly move to cut ties and move safehouses when someone is being tortured and interrogated if the claim (of its bad information content) is true?

Why is that? Well, here is my guess. The problem located likely at the the phrase supplied by Mr Kuznicki, that is “bad information.” Almost all information from intelligence sources in a conflict are “bad” in the same way that confessions under duress are. The signal to noise ratio is horrible in all but ideal situations … and ideal situations are very very rare. The best information in a semi-static situation is obtained by a good cultivated relationship with a snitch, just as was found to be the case in Iraq. But from an intelligence gathering point of view, most of the intelligence gained is bad. This, in the crime fighting genre, leads to the “chasing down leads” side of the equation. Snitches, double agents, satellites, drones, phone taps, cell phone monitoring, radio spectrum analysis, internet/switch monitoring, bribed, interrogation, and “enhanced interrogation” are all bad sources of intelligence when you get down to it. The signal to noise ratio of all of these methods is horrible. Correlation between intelligence leads to higher probability of fact. In the absence of good leads, agents and people chase down every available lead, again from the crime drama world … leads have to be chased down with footwork. The point being while torture is indeed “bad information.” The problem real problem arises that so are all the other sources of information. When all information is bad, more bad information which can lead to correlation with other information is in itself entirely useless. When the gestapo or whatever agency got 75 names from torture. They chased down all those leads. Perhaps many were bad. But they had resources and the time and if 5 of the 75 led to a little evidence then they have 5 more people with which to have an enhanced chat. And that led to more names that lead to further connections. That was worth the payoff (for them).

There is another issue regarding torture I’d raised years ago which is the culturally relative problem in defining torture. The colonial era trans-Atlantic voyage, not to speak of the Darwin/Cook trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic voyages, today would be regard as cruel and inhumane punishment. The quantity of pain regularly indured by NFL, professional cyclists, and many other professional atheletes is astounding to the uninitiated and likely exceeds that delivered to those under many forms of “enhanced interrogation.” The sleep deprivation noted in some of the accounts compare that to the Shackleton’s amazing journey or those who race sailboats around the world and around the horn. Read the beginning of this book (The Soul Of A New Machine) for the geek variant on sleep deprivation. There is an old joke which goes something like this.

Joe Frazier is in a bar drinking and one surly drunk stumbles up to him and starts swearing about the money he lost betting on him. The drunk is ignored by Joe which just bugs the drunk and spurs him to exclaim how he’s going to haul off and wing Joe but good. Joe finally ever so slowly turns to him and says, “If you hit me, and I happen to find out about it ….. “

The point is what is torture to one person in one time and era is making an ordinary living to another.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityGovernmentMark O.

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