Littlejohn on torture.

by endlesspsych

Richard Littlejohns’ latest column in the Daily Fail is a torturous exercise in justifying the unjustifiable: in this case torture.

His first gambit is an interesting exercise in reclassifying Binyan from an in-group position “British” to the member of a distant out-group and one that already is the focus of the Fail’s readerships ire “an immigrant”. Which seems to make implicit the idea that it’s ok to torture those filthy foreign oiks but if they were from good old Blighty… Well that would likely be a different story altogether.

Indeed the Mail started a campaign to stop Gary McKinnon being extradited () Gary McKinnons crimes were committed on British soil but they do involve acts of espionage against a foreign nation (in this case the US) Binyams crimes are that he allegedly trained with terrorists – allegations obtained under the duress of torture. Torture with which British intelligence operatives are alledged to have been, and it seems likely they were, involved with.

Littlejohn claims he is not condoning torture – and directly perhaps he isn’t but he states that the intelligence services would be in dereliction of their duty if they ignored information that they knew had been obtained from suspects under extreme mental duress.

To my mind if they knew that information had been obtained under duress then they would be negligent in their duties if they accepted such information as viable or actionable intelligence.

Neurobiologist Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin explains in a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciencecalled “Torturing the Brain,” “the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.”

Extreme pain and stress has been shown in many, many situations to have the opposite effect to that which interrogators wish. Yes they may “soften up” the victim but also leave them in such a state that they cannot effectively respond to questioning accurately. As such I would suggest that the interrogator will probably extract the information they wish but really they have no means of knowing if this information is actually true. That’s actually true in an objective real sense that it provides actionable intelligence not in some wishy washy post modern “there is no truth sense”.

Further to this looking at how information is recalled from the brain shows another reason why torture probably doesn’t work.

Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. “Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred,” notes O’Mara. “Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”

A report published by the Intelligence Science Board in 2007 found that no research existed to support the use of enhanced interrogation. And O’Mara’s review, published Monday in Trends in Cognitive Science, describes a wealth of science that supports ending the practice.

O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read.

What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.

I’d further argue that the principle of convergent evidence strongly suggests that torture does not in fact work. Indeed just by using the information contained in this report the idea that torture is effective in extracting accurate and reliable evidence seems to be built on shaky ground.

The strongest argument in favour of torture is the so called ‘ticking bomb’ scenaro. Alan Dershowitz gave a good summary of it in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2001:

“Everybody says they’re opposed to torture. But everyone would do it personally if they knew it could save the life of a kidnapped child who had only two hours of oxygen left before death. And it would be the right thing to do.”

It’s a compelling argument, until you start to look at the assumptions that you have to make to accept it. This argument assumes that you have the right person in custody, it assumes that this person actually has the information you need, it assumes that there isn’t a better way of getting hold of the evidence, and above all it assumes that torture is an effective way of getting that information.

Yet this misses one crucial problem with the ticking timebomb scenario… In that there is no method of extracting information that falls under the umbrella of torture that doesn’t require quite some time to carry out. Indeed torture methods rely on keeping people in stress positions or isolation for hours on end… so unless the bomb has quite a long fuse torture, as it is currently practiced under the auspices of KUBARK and it’s successors is useless.

There is a further reason to assume that, even despite evidence that seems to suggest the contrary, if torture does work it is not of benefit to a democratic country to make us of its techniques. As shown by the French battle for Algiers in the 1950’s and a lesson we should have learnt from the Northen Ireland conflict in the 1970’s. Torture simply serves to further alienate the local population and turn them against you with more venom and more surety in your status as enemy. In short torture plays directly into the hands of terrorist recruiters.

As a former special intelligence operations officer notes:

“It’s extremely ineffective, and it’s counterproductive to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he told reporters. “When we torture somebody, it hardens their resolve,” Alexander explained. “The information that you get is unreliable … And even if you do get reliable information, you’re able to stop a terrorist attack, Al-Qaeda’s then going to use the fact that we torture people to recruit new members.” Alexander says torture techniques used in Iraq consistently failed to produce actionable intelligence and that methods outlined in the US Army Field Manual, which rest on confidence building, consistently worked and gave the interrogators access to critical information.

Indeed it seems we should be helping suspects from whom we wish to extract information rather than hurting them. Building up rapport and extracting information on the basis of the norms of reciprocity seems to be more effective. Although I an almost hear the cry go up now – there isn’t enough time! We need a quicker method! Well given how long it takes to depattern and subdue an individual terror suspect and this process makes it less, rather than more, likely that they will cooperate…

So in answer to Littlejohns question: yes we should be interrogating terror suspects with a cup of tea and some human warmth. It might do our intelligence gathering the world of good.

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