Does waterboarding work?

George W. Bush has no doubts about either the legality or usefulness of waterboarding. Indeed, he has even come out with a (to my knowledge) wholly new justification for it - that Islamic militants may feel less guilty about spilling the beans if they've been roughed about a bit first. Waterboarding "allowed" one suspect to co-operate, he claimed - and the man concerned subsequently became so co-operative that he urged his captors to "do this for all the brothers". Given that Abu Zabaydah was waterboarded a total of 83 times, he clearly needed quite a bit of persuading.

Does waterboarding work?

I suspect the true answer to that question is "it depends". Depends, among other things, on what your definition of "works" is.

If the question means, "Does waterboarding sometimes elicit accurate and important intelligence, which the detainee is unwilling to give, and which proves to be useful to the interrogators" then the answer is probably "Yes, but only sometimes." But even if the answer is in the affirmative, that doesn't make the practice legitimate - or even a useful source of intelligence.

For a case to be made for the unpleasant practice of simulated drowning (or for any other form of torture) at the very least three things would need to be established:

1) that the information gleaned is accurate and useful

2) that the information is believed by the interrogators and

3) that there is no other available technique by which the information could have been obtained.

The first of these provisos is obvious. It is also obvious - or should be - that information obtained via torture (or procedures that seem a lot like torture to anyone who isn't a White House lawyer) is often inaccurate and useless. It may be as absurd as confessions of witchcraft (which seemed plausible enough at the time); more likely it will include the naming of wholly innocent co-conspirators or of imagined plots. To the person being tortured, giving true information will always be less pressing than giving the information that the interrogators want to hear. If the interrogators expect to hear X, but the truth is Y, then telling them Y may not end the torture. It may make it worse.

Hence point 2. It is not enough for the detainee to tell the truth if torture is to be pronounced effective. The truth must also accord with what the interrogators expect, otherwise they may well ignore it; so that even if subsequently it turns out to be accurate it will not have done any good. Any form of interrogation is potentially vulnerable to this, but torture increases the danger. The prime motivation of the detainee, after all, is not to tell the truth but to stop the pain - and if telling an unexpected truth doesn't do it, the detainee is likely to fall back on a more plausible falsehood.

Even Abu Zubaydah, who Dubya claims was so grateful to the CIA for waterboarding him, turns out to have told his interrogators a load of rubbish which, however, was in close accord with what they wanted to hear. That Saddam Hussein was hand-in-glove with Al Qaeda, for example.

There will be cases in which the information elicited by torture is both accurate and believable. In such a situation, it could be said that the torture has worked. But isolated successes, however beneficial, can't justify the use of torture or near-torture in general, even leaving aside humanitarian considerations. It would have to be shown that torture in general has a higher success-rate than other forms of interrogation. No study has ever come remotely close to proving this claim.

The third of my provisos is routinely ignored by supporters of waterboarding, and indeed of other forms of investigation by torture practised by some of our allies who are rather less scupulous even than the Bush administration. They stress, rather, the importance and utility of particular snippets information (such as today's claim by ex-president Bush that waterboarding-assisted interrogation helped prevent an attack on London), as though the fact that information has been elicited in itself justifies the use of torture. But of course it doesn't. Unless it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that only inhumane methods are capable of extracting vital information from detainees, then the case for such methods falls.

This is not simply because a civilised society should always prefer civilised methods, but because information extracted under torture has frequently been shown to be unreliable. There's evidence that torture may even elicit false memories (not just false confessions - actual false memories). Even if it "works" in particular cases, there will almost always be more reliable methods available. Unfortunately, a few successes, being dramatic and newsworthy, have more impact than the statistically more significant number of failures.

But then the attraction that torture continues to have for many people has little to do with a dispassionate consideration of its effectiveness. Rather, it can seem emotionally satisfying. Here, for example, is Con Coughlin:

...when you are dealing with fanatics who glorify in the murder of thousands of innocent civilians – as happened during the September 11 attacks – simply offering them a cup of tea and a good book to read is hardly going to persuade them to tell reveal their darkest secrets.

What he seems to be saying here is no more than "they deserve it" ("they" being obviously guilty terrorists, of course; no innocent person ever undergoes interrogation). Perhaps, too, the very fact that a piece of information has been tortured out of a detainee may make it seem somehow more valuable. Meanwhile, breaching the moral taboo against torture (or even advocating torture) becomes a signal of one's own toughness and realism, one's unsentimental willingness to face the tough decisions needed to keep the country safe. I suspect that, for all the pained discussion of "ticking timebombs" and similar Spooks-style scenarios that are always brought up whenever anyone attempts to put the case for torture, it's not just the possibility of gleaning valuable information that makes it sound like a good idea. It's also that it's so darned macho.


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