Sunday, May 31, 2009

What works for interrogators?

From the McClatchy newsletter:

The heated debate in recent weeks about harsh interrogation treatments at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere highlights what some scientists have been warning the U.S. for years: that almost no research exists to tell interrogators the best way to get information out of suspected terrorists.


Now, as details emerge about coercive techniques and as the war on terror continues with no end in sight, some in Congress think the U.S. needs a more systematic way of going about interrogations.

Some researchers and veteran interrogators have urged the creation of a Center of Excellence for Interrogation, a place to capture the best science, to share research among the nation's intelligence services and to train military interrogators on a career path.

"If we can be more effective by being skilled than by being brutal, then we're fools not to be more skilled," Coulam said.

There are some people who don't want this kind of research being done, though, because we might find out torture sometimes works.

The plans for interrogation research make some observers queasy, including anti-torture advocates who worry that research might open the door to coercion.


Still, the quest for more research could raise important ethical questions for Price and others. If science says harsh coercion tactics work, for example, should the U.S. take part? What if lives were at stake? How many lives?

"This is Ethics 101," Price said.

"There are some things that we don't do to other human beings in a country with our values," he said. "There are certain moral standards you live by."

But the problem remains, as I've written elsewhere, that we're assuming the answers rather than knowing them. As John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former Judge Advocate in the Navy notes:

"People might concede that torture does work. At least, it works on occasion. The real question is: Do other techniques work better?"

I can see arguing that noncoercive techniques work better than coercive ones. I've seen to many accounts of torture working to buy the argument that it doesn't work. But I can buy, "Yes, torture works, but these techniques work better." Just show me the data.

But apparently, there isn't any.

Just after becoming president, Obama ordered that the Army Field Manual — largely unchanged since World War II — would be used as the guide to interrogations. It includes techniques with monikers such as "Pride and Ego," "Mutt and Jeff," and "We Know All."

The decision was meant to quell coercive techniques. Scientists, however, said even the Army's methods require study.

"Virtually none of them — or their underlying assumptions — are based on scientific research," Randy Borum, a forensic psychologist at the University of South Florida, wrote in the Intelligence Science Board's report.

James Carafano, a senior fellow in homeland security and defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that research might help. However, he said that it might come too late to be useful in the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said it would be wrong to presume that noncoercive techniques would work better than coercion.

In this week's column, Dennis Prager compares assumptions about torture to assumptions about cancer treatment.

...It is as if the President, or anyone else, announced that brutal methods of combating cancer like chemotherapy and radiation were “not the most effective means” of combating cancer – and then refused to say what non-brutal means were more effective.

Indeed. And what's more, there are a variety of treatments available for cancer, because some cancers respond better to one treatment than to another. I suspect some people will respond to noncoercive methods of interrogation better than others, but some people will keep their secrets unless subjected to severe duress.

If it turns out some secrets can only be obtained through torture, then we have to decide whether those secrets are worth the price. And conversely, if we're determined never to torture, we have to be willing to pay that price as well.

In the absence of data, moral preening is a lot easier. We can assert truths without having to prove them. But if we do actual research, moral preening gets to be a lot more difficult.

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