On Torture and Rejecting Straw Men

In middle school, my favorite book was Tom Clancy's Without Remorse. The book is more or less a history of one of Clancy's recurring characters, a special operative known as John Clark.

One of the book's storylines follows a pilot shot down over Vietnam, a devout Mormon named Robin Zacharias. Zacharias is being held in a Vietcong prison camp, and befriends the camp's Soviet military adviser, a Red Army colonel named Yevgenievich Grishanov. While Zacharias is tortured by the Vietnamese, Grishanov speaks to Zacharias about his faith and family. When Grishanov learns the camps captives will be executed, he requests his Soviet superiors take the captives away to Russia for the remainder of their captivity.

Whether Grishanov's empathy is true or not, Zacharias eventually spills information to him.

Years ago, I was given a post card by an Israeli man teaching a class on determining deception in sworn statements. It was a meticulous painting, sketched out by a captive of the KGB who'd been released. It was titled "KGB Interrogation Room". It was a neatly appointed office, with a desk and two chairs, and bookshelves, and a typewriter. It was inviting.

This was a theme throughout my time in US Army Intelligence. Interrogation, and similar methods of gathering information, were never about physical harm or intimidation. While I was not slotted as an interrogator, I worked closely with them, and was cross-trained on some minor interrogation techniques. I'm certainly no expert, and I worked in the lowest rung of intelligence gathering, but it seemed an unquestioned doctrinal truth, despite what we see on 24, torture does not work.

I use the word "doctrinal" because while this is what thoughtful research had yielded, I worked with some people who disagreed (though never acted on their disagreement). Whether out of sadism or rejection of previous research, they believed torture was effective.

And I would guess, at times, it is. I'm sure torture has brought out tons of information over centuries, true and untrue. But what separated us as a civilized nation was our refusal to stoop to that level.

Again, though, that's an argument about human rights, and that's what proponents of torture want you to believe, that's it's a matter of breaking a few eggs to make an omelette. After all, what's a thousand American lives compared to one terrorist's comfort?

That is what has baffled me about this whole thing. I never knew it was a question, because I assumed it's widely accepted in the professional intelligence community that torture does not work. This piece on NPR this morning shows that might be a correct.
A former senior FBI agent involved in the interrogation of captured al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, Ali Soufan, "...said his experience led him to the conclusion 'that these [harsh] techniques should not be used,' describing them as 'slow, ineffective and unreliable and as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida.'

'Al-Qaida operatives are trained to resist torture,' he testified. 'That's why … waterboarding itself had to be used 83 times [on Zubaydah],' he said, referring to information made known in a memo dated May 30, 2005. The memo also stated that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month."

Read the whole piece, including Senator Lindsey Graham's argument. To me, this is an example of torture proponents (namely, Dick Cheney) not being able to win on torture even being effective, so they make the argument about something else. It's been an ongoing theme for 8 years. Seeking out true perspectives is one of our most sacred roles as Christians, and polls like the one conducted by the Pew Forum a few weeks ago show we've fallen far short.


  1. Thanks for your personal insight into this issue, Jordan. I'm with you - I thought it was a given that we don't torture. I don't understand how, in eight short years, an issue can come up for debate that was previously held as an integral part of our republic.

    For more about Ali Soufan and his counterpart's opinions about the Bush administration's position on torture, check out this interview in Newsweek:


  2. My understanding is that the Bush administration agrees that we are not to use torture, but that waterboarding is not torture.

  3. I get your point, James, but you're missing the point of my entire article. Those methods do not work.

  4. Great post, Jordan. Thanks for the insight.

  5. I wasn't missing your point as much as detracting it by drawing a straw man. ;)

    Seriously, I get what you are saying. But it wasn't clear to me--and perhaps you can elaborate--if there is empirical evidence (I like figures and stats) that torture does not achieve desired results, what elements of information extraction methods are being considered "torture" by the ones compiling the data?

  6. When I was a military policeman, I stood by listening while an investigator worked on a guy who had been accused of attempted rape, a very difficult charge to prove. The mind games he played with that guy were amazing. He got the confession, but to this day I wonder if the guy was guilty. My point is that the line between what's acceptable and what's not when trying to get answers in an interrogation is a pretty muddy one.

  7. When something is wrong it's wrong. It's like saying that extra martial sex is ok if you use birth control. It's still not God's best for your life, even if there is no pregnancy.

    I get really tired of Christians saying God killed people so it's OK for us to torture. First, he killed them, he didn't torture them. Second, He is God. We aren't. If he wants these people tortured, he'll do it.

    Or how about people who use Joshua at Jericho as an excuse for justly going to war? I can tell you, if we had taken Baghdad using only trumpets and marching, I would know that it was God ordained. The way it was? Not so much!

    We shouldn't use torture because it's wrong.
    We shouldn't use torture because it doesn't work.
    We shouldn't use torture because it exposes our soldiers to torture, should they ever be held by a foreign enemy.

    Doing the right thing regardless of how our enemies behave is how we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

    Thanks for letting me spout.

  8. @ James:

    I see what you're saying, and I think you're right in that concrete stats are difficult to get, and who knows really? That's a good thing, because that sort of research would probably be fairly SS-esque.

    However, that's why I generally buy into whatever research the KGB ended up using...they had the leeway to try all sorts of methods.

    If I was ever in captivity, I think I'd probably spill after two minutes of torture (even if it wasn't life-threatening). But consider this: if you're in a position where you're being held by the enemy, you're scared out of your mind, and you are completely out of your element, how are you going to react when someone is suddenly kind to you?

    Again, if that's me, I'm going to be so relieved I'd spit out all kinds of stuff.

    Which is why I hope we never face any sort of Left Behind/Tribulation Force sort of situation, because I'm ratting you all out the first chance I get.