The Torture Debate, Redux


Apr 1, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on on April 1, 2009.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been insisting again that the coercive interrogation techniques used against terrorism detainees after 9/11 prevented attacks on the United States. Protecting American security is "a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business," Cheney told "These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek."

What's more, Cheney says, limitations on these interrogation techniques would endanger the American people. "There is a 'high probability' that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in the coming years," he says, "and the Obama administration's policies make it more likely the attempt will succeed."

It would be easy for Cheney's critics to dismiss these comments as an attempt to defend a controversial legacy. But as Cheney is not alone in these views, and the debate about the merits and morality of torture has manifestly not ended with the election of President Obama, his assertions merit more careful examination.

Cheney asserts that information will one day be made available proving that the interrogation methods he championed made it possible for the United States to prevent other 9/11-style attacks. Until such information is released, we have no way to judge the veracity of his claim.

Meanwhile, however, those who engage in or approve of interrogation techniques that many view as illegal or immoral must defend the efficacy of these methods. The act demands a commensurate return. If it produces nothing of great value, it descends from interrogation to mere torment.

Those opposed to such techniques reject even the possibility that--putting moral, legal, and strategic calculations aside--the techniques might be useful. They demand direct evidence that torture prevented a terrorist attack. Such direct evidence is rare.

Torture makes people talk. But what they say under duress is not reliable. The consensus view of those experienced in interrogation is that there are better ways than torture to extract information. The approaches they favor are sophisticated and culturally based. They are subtle rather than brutal.

Experienced interrogators who first questioned al-Qa'ida captives argue that they were making progress using accepted law enforcement techniques before they were replaced by others who were determined to speed up the interrogations with rougher methods. These methods provided information that contributed to a weakening of al-Qa'ida, but they also produced a tremendous volume of false information.

Many Americans went along with rough treatment of suspected terrorists, not because they were convinced of the necessity of such treatment to extract information, but because they were angry and fearful and didn't mind seeing suspected terrorists punished.

Those who support interrogation practices, in which the interrogator seeks to build a relationship with the suspect, admit that these techniques require time. Proponents of coercive interrogation often insert a ticking clock in their arguments, claiming that a specific threat is, or was, imminent. A captured terrorist knows where a bomb is about to go off--we are minutes away from carnage. Urgency demands getting rough. Outside of Hollywood and ethics classes in law schools, such scenarios are hard to find.

Anyway, Cheney, in his interview, warns of what terrorists will do in the "coming years." This hardly constitutes an imminent threat, and certainly not a specific plot yet to be uncovered through interrogation.

The problem is that there is no way to empirically test these competing views. We cannot run an experiment in which 20 people are told a secret, then 10 of them are tortured and 10 are interrogated in other ways, and the results compared. We can't even hold a seminar on the topic. Who would present papers based on case studies of torture that worked?

Would we not be justified in using them to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack involving nuclear or biological weapons? The pro-coercive interrogation camp argues that those who flinch at taking off the gloves to interrogate a terrorist would surely think differently if the lives of "perhaps hundreds of thousands of people" were at stake.

Who knows what anyone might do in such unlikely, but desperate circumstances? My decision would be a matter of personal conscience. It would not depend on government authorization or on Mr. Cheney's approval. Nor would I expect to avoid the consequences of that decision.

A sustainable and successful counterterrorist strategy must weigh factors beyond the efficacy of coercive interrogation. In the end, the inhumane treatment of suspects feeds the false narrative of our terrorist foes, promotes their recruitment efforts, and is used to justify their acts. It erodes public support at home and among our allies for what all agree will be a long struggle against terrorists and their apologists. Effective or not, torture is bad strategy.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Prometheus, 2008), is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This op-ed orginally appeared on

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