Tag Archives: torture

Groupthink and the selection of interrogation techniques

Evidence that post-9/11 groupthink drove the push to torture:

“It was not a job we sought out,” said one former senior intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation. “The generals didn’t want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the agency because we had the [legal] authorities and could operate overseas.”

In [James E.] Mitchell, the CIA found an authoritative professional who had answers, despite an absence of practical experience in interrogating terrorism suspects or data showing that harsh tactics work.

“Here was a guy with a title and a shingle,” recalled the participant in the Langley meeting, “and he was saying things that others in the room already believed to be true.”

Consultants and the confirmation bias; it’s a pattern that happens again and again.

CIA dumps torture shrinks

CIA Director Leon Panetta is purging the shrinks who helped with torture:

One sign that outsider CIA Director Leon Panetta is reversing the troubled agency’s course? Weeks after President Obama took office, the CIA renewed its contract with the firm run by two psychologists who introduced waterboarding to the agency—that is until two months later, when Panetta fired them. In his first interview since taking the job, Panetta tells The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that, when he took over, he “wanted to be damn sure” that no one was on the payroll who could be prosecuted for war crimes. But once the agency was clean, he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time dealing with the past and what mistakes were made.” Panetta also says that he actually supported a truth commission to investigate the CIA’s use of torture, at least until President Obama nipped the idea in the bud.

Given the APA’s ruling on psychologists who aid with torture, I assume there will be some questions about what they did and when they did it, though I am not sure the ruling will be retroactive.

US increasingly relies on foreign intel cooperation

Despite some thorny problems, cooperation may be desirable and necessary:

The United States is now relying heavily on foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain all but the highest-level terrorist suspects seized outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to current and former American government officials.

The change represents a significant loosening of the reins for the United States, which has worked closely with allies to combat violent extremism since the 9/11 attacks but is now pushing that cooperation to new limits.

In the past 10 months, for example, about a half-dozen midlevel financiers and logistics experts working with Al Qaeda have been captured and are being held by intelligence services in four Middle Eastern countries after the United States provided information that led to their arrests by local security services, a former American counterterrorism official said.

The thorny problems, of course, include the potential for catch-and-release policies to return bad guys to the field and for innocents to have electrodes attached to their genitals.  Those considerable concerns aside, building patterns of cooperation with foreign intel services just makes sense.  It defuses a lot of the anger about US interventionism and creates interdependence (and influence) among parties closer to the problem.

That said, torture and detention of the wrong people is almost a certainty, and the US cannot dispose of its complicity in these activities by outsourcing them.  Effective cooperation requires transparency and accountability.

If you proved torture works, would you say so?

Not really necessary to add anything to this discussion of whether to publish inconvenient findings:

From a practical perspective, it makes little sense.  Uncomfortable findings, if they hold up, will get discovered by someone.  Sitting on them merely magnifies their impact.  One of the few currencies social scientists can use is their research integrity.  A short-term compromise of this integrity simply magnifies the impact of the discovery.

From an ethical perspective, social science results do not upend ethical arguments for or against a particular issue.  In other words, even if torture works in extracting information, there are strong normative reasons to oppose its use.  Covering up results, however, does compromise the ethical position of the person making the anti-torture argument.


Week in Public Organizations, 29Mar2009


A spirited defense of management theory, actual goals in war, torture making strange bedfellows, and the Peter Principle for public affairs.  These were some of the relatively weird stories in the public life of organizations this week:

Peter Principle quiz targets current affairs
Detainee defends agent, goes after intelligence community
New Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy to feature benchmarks, outcomes
Foss and Klein defend management theory

Detainee defends agent, goes after intelligence community

That’s a bold strategy:

A British resident who says he was tortured before being sent to Guantánamo Bay said yesterday he may give evidence on behalf of an MI5 officer to ensure that senior figures within the government are held to account for any involvement in his treatment.

Binyam Mohamed spoke to the Guardian after the attorney general called in the Metropolitan police to investigate claims that MI5 had colluded in his interrogation.

Mohamed said he was determined that the officer, known only as Officer B, should not be scapegoated. “It’s very important that we get to the truth, for everyone in the future,” he said.

The attorney general, Lady Scotland, announced the unprecedented move in light of damning evidence that Britain’s security and intelligence agencies colluded with the CIA in Mohamed’s inhuman treatment and secret rendition.

To summarize:  a detainee rushes to the aid of the agent who tortured him or contributed to his torture in order to expose alleged systemic support for torture.  That’s a different way to pursue justice.

MI5 and MI6 to publish interrogation rules

This, if genuine, is a milestone in preserving honesty and transparency in global security:

The rules that determine how MI5 and MI6 are allowed to interrogate suspects, including strict guidance banning the use of torture, will be published for the first time, Gordon Brown said today.

The prime minister also announced that he has asked the intelligence and security committee to review “any developments and relevant information” following allegations that British intelligence officers were involved in the torture of Binyam Mohamed and other terrorism suspects.

In a statement to parliament, Brown said that he was taking these steps “to protect the reputation of our security and intelligence services” and that Britain condemned torture “without reservation”.

He said: “Torture has no place in a modern democratic society. We will not condone it. Nor will we ever ask others to do it on our behalf.”

Torture tends to be something people often say should not be done but admit in private that they would tolerate or condone.  I have found it disconcertingly easy to convince otherwise gentle people to support the use of torture in thought experiments, much as Stanley Milgram prodded innocents to administer shocks to strangers to the point of (presumed) death.  All of which is to say that torture is a deceptively slippery slope, and that making its definition, rules, and odiousness transparent is a good step toward banishing this barbaric and counterproductive practice.