Does torture work?

On another thread, one topic being discussed is whether torture can be justified in wartime. One of the opinions offered by several people is that torture is wrong (among other reasons) because it doesn’t work. They believe that the victim will just tell the torturer “what he wants to hear” rather then give reliable information.

Now I agree that torture is wrong for many reasons, but I’ve always assumed ineffectiveness wasn’t one of them. I figure torture works as a means of gaining useful information. Granted, the victim will probably attempt to deceive the interrogator but I figured any reasonably competent torturer will be able to seperate the truth from the lies in most cases.

Am I in error? Has anyone ever done any studies on how reliable information gained under torture is?

Hopefully this won’t get hijacked into a debate on the moral issues of torture. I’d like to discuss the practical issues.

Depends exactly on what you mean by ‘torture’ I’d say. There are all different kinds of course…physical, mental, drug induced, brute force, sleep depravation, etc. I’m fairly certain some forms of ‘torture’ work just fine in extracting information, given enough time, though I’m not sure where you would get proof of that.


Here I have to point out what I think it happened, and a reason why little will be investigated about if torture was effective on TWAT: I do think one of the “efficient information extractions” was information that then was used to justify the war in Iraq. You decide now if it was reliable information. [Needs a pass]

Historically, the price paid for using torture is terrible, better information can be obtained trough different means.

I just remembered one big historical item: torture really worked well to find all those witches in the middle ages eh? (An old war against terror IMO :slight_smile: )

Sadly, as progress has showed us, virtually all the confessions obtained by torture were false.

Exactamundo. If you’re talking about old-fashioned bloody pain, it is unreliable; they’ll give you a name, but it may or not be the right name. For that reason alone, I think it is very unlikely that US forces are using it in any significant amount (Unless they are in a situation where speed is essential).

If you want to expand the definition of torture to include sleep deprivation, psychological manipulation, emotional duress, and the like, it can be very effective in the right hands. For that reason alone, I think it is very likely that US forces are using it.

Ow–yes it does!

Sorry :dubious:

What’s the goal? Torture seems to have been a pretty effective tool for people like Amin, Stalin, Hussein, and others to attain and remain in power. I suspect that if we employed such brutal methods as a matter of basic policy that we might be able to pacify the region. Mind you that I certainly don’t have the stomach to do that kind of thing myself nor have it done by proxy.


If you really need to know a fact that can be verified, then yes, Torture works. First, the victim will lie, then- at a certain point, the victim will start telling the truth. Later, the victim will start making things up. However, you really won’t know when they reach what point. If your question is 'where is the bomb", then you can keep confirming the statements. If your question is not immediatly verifable, then you’re not going to get enough useful stuff in all the lies and made up stuff to be helpful.

If you just want a confession, after a while, they’ll confess to anything- as witness the Knight’s Templar.

So for 'where is the bomb"- it can work. It’s brutal and inhuman. But If I knew the terrorists had a nuke planted in (fill in name of your large home town), and we had only a few hours to find it- I’d apply the electrodes myself- and live with my nightmares and conscience afterwards. I’d turn myself in, and resign or whatever.

But most real physical torture really seems to be done for the benefit of the sadistic pleasures it gives those who perform it or watch it.

If the person ever had useful information to begin with. While most people would concentrate on Iraq and A-Stan , I would more concentrate on the Viet Nam war, with the North Vietnamese doing the torture.

While the average soldier would be able to tell an interogator his name , rank and serial number , he would also most likely be detailing his unit , company , battalion , division etc. Where he was garrisoned ,what units were sharing the compound , his senior officers if he knew of them, basically what military intel weenies want to know , to gain a picture of who and what is deployed against them.

Where the Vietnam war comes to mind , is the amount of US pilots that had access to classified information on American nuclear strategy , those same B-52 pilots would have flown nuclear deterent missions , had access to nuclear weapons ,Siops , and the like ,which the soviets wanted.

So I can imagine that someone ,some where still views torture or aggressive interogation as some what of an effective tool, and some people are just plain sadistic.

After being prepped for several days before hand , with sleep and sensory deprivation , the detainee is basically babbaling what ever he can muster, with an epidural and ketanmine , he or she may not even realize what they are saying.

What ever is said , goes onto tapes and gets transcibed and goes into the confidence basket , with a percentage attached and then sent up to the next level of intel gathering.

So in concert with signint tracking chatter clusters, the end result of the dragnet may produce a location of a cell with a certain degree of confince , troops move in , doors are kicked in , bad guys are killed or they get the wrong house and CNN has a field day.

Only a national agency could produce that sort of study , with any sort of reliable data , both domestic and foreign sources and historic studies, has it , probably , but its not the sort of thing that would get open sourced.


As a reliable source of truthful and useable information?


As an expression of US culture of the early 21st century?


Very good question. And the answer is yes: it is an error to believe that “torture works”. I wish this were more widely known.

Fact is, the idea that “torture works” is based on an underlying, unstated assumption. Namely, the assumption that “guilty” people are more likely to break under torture than “innocent” people. I’d say this assumption is blatantly false. Real terrorists (and real secret agents) undergo extensive torture-resistance training.

This false assumption is called the interrogator’s fallacy.

Furthermore, reading people’s opinions (blogs, WSJ) over the years, there seems to be another false assumption in play: the assumption that the people you have caught are all guilty in the first place. The truth is that they invariably catch many more innocents than guilties when they round up people for torture.

Here’s a better link about The Interrogator’s Fallacy

That’s an interesting angle. Would the agencies in the modern world (or even pre-modern) have developed some standard techniques (psychological, for example) to drive the victim to the ‘truth point’, or is every victim usually considered as a standalone case, and the process starts from scratch?

IANATorturer but I image it would be fairly simple to guarentee accurate information from torture. Simply intersperse questions of which you want to find the answer with questions of which you know the answer. If they subject answers incorrectly, you apply physical pain until they answer correctly. Since the subject doesn’t know if you know the actual answer to a question or not, they will tend not to risk giving you the wrong answer in order to avoid the pain. If you have several subjects, you can use the knowledge gained from one to help crack the others.

This is all assuming that the subjects had no prior briefing. There are ways to get around this by coming up with a cover story say, but it can still be cracked with enough pressure.

I really never understood why so mny people on this board insist on stating that torture “doesn’t work”. Of course, someone tortured can say anything. However, it’s not like there’s no way to use the information given.
As mentionned above, torture will be efficient if the information is verifiable. Like in “where are the WMD hidden?”. Even if it isn’t directly verifiable, you can for instance torture several people and compare their statements. If several of them say the same thing independantly, you can suppose it’s the truth. You can also compare their statements with informations you could have gathered by other methods. And even if there’s nothing you can compare them with, it’s still an information, that can be truthful or not, but intelligence gathered in more acceptable ways isn’t necessarily more reliable, either.
Also, torturers won’t let the victims know what they really know, will lie to them or deceive them so that the victim won’t be sure of anything and won’t dare to lie (that’s assuming they actually know something), for instance out of fear that it could become worst if they do so. It’s not because torture is used that more subtle interrogation methods or tricks won’t be used to at the same time.
As already mentionned it works also if you don’t care about the statements being truthful but just want the victim to admit guilt, like in the Stalinian era. It also works if you want to frighten the population and people would could potentially join whatever group you’re fighting. If it’s known you’ll be tortured if caught, you’re going to think twice before doing anything (and in this case, it doesn’t matter if you sometimes torture innocent people).
So, yes, torture will work. It has been widespread, and used by people who weren’t particularily stupid, for a reason.

Let’s use the Gestapo for example; suppose they want to know where some resistance movement is hiding weapons in a town. Suppose they know that a guy named John knows the location. So they arrest all ten guys named John in the town and torture them. Now nine of these guys are in a really bad situation; they’re going to be tortured for information they don’t have. And the tenth guy is the real John; he’s also going to be tortured but he actually does know where the weapons are.

Now we can assume everyone, including the real John, will start out proclaiming their ignorance. But after sufficient torture all of them will start talking. Nine of them are going to have no choice except lying; if their initial lies aren’t believed, they will tell different lies. John will probably also start lying but will eventually tell the truth. The premise that torture doesn’t work would say that the real John’s information will be indistinguishable from the other Johns’ information. But there are numerous methods to distinguish between real and fake information. Shalmanese pointed out one obvious one; have information you already know is true and use that to verify the truth of what the victims are saying. The torturer won’t ask “where are the guns?” - he’ll ask “what kind of supplies are there and where are they hidden?” Nine of the guys will be guessing things like a radio or money or explosives and also guess locations. The guy that says guns will be the one whose location is checked.

Several people have pointed out the political cost a regime pays when it engages in torture. Dictatorships are not necessarily stupid; they wouldn’t pay the political cost of torturing people for no reason. They’re willing to torture people despite the risk of domestic unrest and international censor because they have found it works.

Assuming any two of them know the answer, and both break for real at the same time. It takes special circumstances for torture to be a useful source of information.

As a method of instilling fear in a populace of course, it is unparalleled. It also instils hate, which in the long term can be counterproductive. Get to work with blowtorches and pliers on all insurgent prisoners in Iraq and you may triple your capture rate, but they may quintuple their recruitment rate. Then you get to play the game of who can be the most appalling bunch of shitheads, us or them. I’m confident the Allies could bring the insurgency to a halt in Iraq if we were as brutal as Saddam Hussein was. What a fine result that would be.

Whether something “works” depends on what you expect it to achieve.

It takes specific but not very special circumstances. It also takes special circumstances for an ordinary interrogation in a police station to be useful. Any way of gathering information (interrogation in a police station, bribing someone, taking pictures…) takes special circumstances for it to be useful. If you’re a spy and take pictures of random buildings, or if you’re a police officer and bring randomly selected people to the police station after a crime has been commited, you likely won’t get any useful information, either… Torture is not different.

Why would them breaking “at the same time” be a requirment, by the way?