August 30, 2010:
The U.S. government commissioned another study on the use of torture to get information out of prisoners who refuse to cooperate. The ISB (Intelligence Science Board) report concluded that U.S. interrogation methods were not scientifically sound, and that the use of torture is counterproductive. For most of the last decade, there has been a growing belief that torture is barbaric and useless. "Opposition to torture" has become something of a religious issue, and a vague one at that. Pressure groups, both domestic and international, have seized on torture, and its abolition, as a major issue. The problem is, there is no agreement on what, exactly, torture is. To many anti-torture advocates, what goes on in police interrogation rooms worldwide, every day, can be considered torture. The effort to define torture gets mixed up with the efforts to outlaw torture. Caught in the middle are intelligence organizations, which are sometimes in situations where torture is the lesser of several evils. CIA officials recently tried to point out that some techniques, that many want to outlaw, were critical in obtaining life-saving information. Critics like to point out that, under torture, the victim will tell you what you want to hear, to get the pain to stop. But a competent interrogator will be able to double check some information provided by the subject under torture, and adjust the questioning as needed. At least that's how it's worked for thousands of years. But now all that is depicted as misguided nonsense that really didn't work at all.
In the popular imagination, torture is the application of pain, often to the point of death, in order to obtain information from an unwilling subject. Torture has been around for thousands of years, and during that time, a lot of mythology has grown up about it. Basically torture is interrogation carried to extremes. The ultimate extreme is killing the subject, which is usually avoided, at least until you get the information.
Advocates for the abolition of torture believe that torture doesn't work. Obviously, it does work. Just check out the history of espionage during World War II, or any other major conflict. Torture was accepted, if not much talked about. Information was regularly extracted from unwilling captives, and damage often done to the subject as a result. Everyone used torture, even if there were regulations against it.
To this day, spies and soldiers are trained to deal with torture. It is acknowledged, in the espionage world, that if one of your people is caught by someone who has torture experts, your guy is likely to talk eventually. Thus there are often provisions for suicide pills. At the very least, there is a "Plan B" for situations where one of your people, who knows secrets, is taken alive. You have to assume he will be tortured and some, or all, of those secrets extracted. Critics of torture insist that information extracted like this is not reliable. The historical record says otherwise, and intelligence agencies, and the military, continue to plan accordingly.
In the war on terror, it was understood, early on, that there might be situations where you had a captive who possessed life-saving information, and you had to get that data, or lose a lot of your own people. To the anti-torture crowd, that is not acceptable. They believe, as an article of faith, that torture is never justified, and simply doesn't work. How do you argue with this? You don't. You can't. It's a religious argument, and you cannot dispute faith, especially if it comes from the Intelligence Science Board.
What the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies want is to avoid is getting stuck with a set of rules so restrictive that, when information must be obtained from someone, the interrogators will have to accept the possibility of going to jail if they attempt to get life saving information. That may be end up being the situation, and torture will never be eliminated. But it is possible to issue rules and regulations, if only to keep the media happy and silence the stridently righteous.