The Justification of Torture Gets Obliterated Part Four – False Confessions

Continued from parts one, two, and three...

The next section in the report addresses the “dangers of false confessions”.  Lots of interesting tidbits of info included here beginning with the fact many of the techniques for torture used by the CIA were derived from SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), a child mostly of the Cold War but apparently not intended for what the agency used it for:

The SERE techniques…had their origins in Communist techniques used to extract false confessions…[T]hat model’s primary objective was to compel a prisoner to generate propaganda, not intelligence.

In other words, the methods torture advocates say are great for gaining intelligence were not actually derived for that purpose.  Should have been a clear indicator it probably wasn’t going to work out too well.  But it wasn’t and it gets worse.  They were also basing their decisions off of results of internal testing, which is problematic:

SERE trainees were given specific “secrets” to keep from “interrogators” in the training exercise, and routinely failed…SERE instructors often know in advance the information they are trying to solicit…SERE instructors likely believe they can tell based on behavioral cues whether someone is telling the truth, but scientific studies show that behavioral indicators of deception are faint and unreliable.

It should be obvious that interrogators in the real world do not know the info they are trying to get from someone in advance.  And the false perception of interrogators’ own ability to detect the truth and lies makes the use of torture incredibly problematic, as I have noted previously.  If we can’t tell someone telling the truth from someone lying then there is no way to know when to start and when to stop torturing a suspect.  And that is probably the most important reason torture should have never been used to begin with.

The study then notes the problems with using sleep deprivation and how this has an adverse effect on memory and might even produce false memories which lead to false confessions in order to stop the torture.  This is followed by the most damaging evidence against the use of torture one might conjure: al-Libi’s link between Iraq and Al Qaeda and the possibility of chemical weapons changing hands in the relationship.

Al-Libi was at first cooperating with interrogators and giving valuable info.  Then he was sent to Egypt to be tortured because he denied (correctly) a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein existed.

al-Libi claimed that during his initial debriefings “he lied…about future operations to avoid torture“…”the next topic was al-Qa’ida’s connections with Iraq…This was a subject about which he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story“…Al-Libi told debriefers that “after the beating,” he was again asked about the connection with Iraq and this time he came up with a story that three al-Qa’ida members went to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons…the topic of anthrax and biological weapons. Al-Libi stated that he “knew nothing about a biological program and did not even understand the term biological.”

This info was quoted by Colin Powell at his UN speech prior to the Iraq War.  We, of course, would never allow info gained by torture in court cases in the United States but happily used some to start a war.  What’s not good enough for us is good enough for us to exert on the rest of the world apparently.

If the idea of using torture as a means for gathering intelligence hasn’t yet been buried forever, then the hammer is coming down very hard on the last nail on its coffin.  It never worked, will never work, and, the saddest part, we knew it wouldn’t work before we started using it.  Let’s hope the issue is forever put to rest for the betterment of mankind.

Lie Detectors: Still Lacking in Truthiness…Just Like Torture

We’ve all seen those intense moments in movies and television where the smart and determined interrogator uses his wits (and maybe his fists) to reveal the lies of a suspect and saves the day in the end.  The hero knows when someone is lying and is right every time.  Reality, however, is far different.  Not only are those interrogators less accurate than the fantasy, the most advanced lie detecting machines currently being developed are still far from perfect according to a recent BBC article.

The countless scenes we’ve witnessed in entertainment have led many of us to believe most interrogators or lie detectors are virtually flawless when it comes to detecting lies and truth.  A twitch of the eye.  Irregular heartbeat or breathing.  A seemingly insignificant hand movement.  Subtle sweating.  Things like this are what we believe the average person can’t pick up but the well trained interrogator or well oiled machine can and that is what makes the difference.  This is simply not true.  If people or polygraphs were as near flawless as we believe in detecting deception, no one would still be developing new types of lie detectors.  But they are, which brings up another question.

If we can’t accurately tell when someone is lying and when they are telling the truth, how can we be sure about picking when, how, and who in regards to torturing people?

Torture is a debate that has been out of the mainstream media’s ADD-like news cycle for a short time but still gets mentioned on occasion, mostly by conservative advocates believing it’s still a useful tactic.  Ignoring the moral issue surrounding the use of torture (as well as quite a few others as to why it is such an awful idea) let’s focus solely on the effect of lying and detecting lies.

While watching the debate over the years, I always thought the ability to detect lying was generally pushed aside too often for other arguments about torture.  With so much error involved in detecting lying it makes one wonder how we can be sure who to torture in the first place.  We know that mistakes were made in this respect, for example the well documented death of the taxi driver tortured at Bagram.  If an interrogator is presented with ten suspects and told all could potentially be terrorists, what do they look for when deciding who to torture?  The one with the most defiant look?  The one least willing to return a stare?  The one wearing a tee-shirt that says “I’m hiding a nuke in my rectum”?

Even after that potentially flawed decision has been made, how do they know when to stop?  If they get a tiny morsel of info that is or seems accurate, an interrogator would probably suspect someone knows more without actually being sure.  Here’s where an even bigger problem could come into play: the confidence of the interrogator to detect lying.  If this person feels their training (along with the influence of Jack Bauer’s image dancing in his head) has made them better than anyone at detecting lying, they may request torture more readily than a more objective interrogator simply because of their own arrogance.  This just complicates an already complicated issue.

The truth is we just aren’t as accurate as we have been led to believe when it comes to detecting lying and innocent people, whether through capital punishment within U.S. borders or torture abroad, have paid the ultimate price for that misjudgement.  Will this debate forever fizzle in America or will we eventually lie to ourselves once again and condone torture with the knowledge we will be constantly making mistakes along the way?  Only time will tell.