Guest Post: Interrogation Experts From Every Branch of the Military and Intelligence Agree that Torture DOESN’T Produce Useful Information

Washington’s Blog

Virtually all of the top interrogation experts – both conservatives and liberals (except for those trying to escape war crimes prosecution) – say that torture doesn’t work:

  • Army Field Manual 34-52 Chapter 1 says:

    “Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

  • The C.I.A.’s 1963 interrogation manual stated:

Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.

  • According to the Washington Post, the CIA’s top spy – Michael Sulick, head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service – said that the spy agency has seen no fall-off in intelligence since waterboarding was banned by the Obama administration. “I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint.”
  • A 30-year veteran of CIA’s operations directorate who rose to the most senior managerial ranks (Milton Bearden) says (as quoted by senior CIA agent and Presidential briefer Ray McGovern):

    It is irresponsible for any administration not to tell a credible story that would convince critics at home and abroad that this torture has served some useful purpose.

    This is not just because the old hands overwhelmingly believe that torture doesn’t work — it doesn’t — but also because they know that torture creates more terrorists and fosters more acts of terror than it could possibly neutralize.

  • A former high-level CIA officer (Philip Giraldi) states:

Many governments that have routinely tortured to obtain information have abandoned the practice when they discovered that other approaches actually worked better for extracting information. Israel prohibited torturing Palestinian terrorist suspects in 1999. Even the German Gestapo stopped torturing French resistance captives when it determined that treating prisoners well actually produced more and better intelligence.

  • Another former high-level CIA official (Bob Baer) says:

    And torture — I just don’t think it really works … you don’t get the truth. What happens when you torture people is, they figure out what you want to hear and they tell you.

  • Michael Scheuer, formerly a senior CIA official in the Counter-Terrorism Center, says:

    “I personally think that any information gotten through extreme methods of torture would probably be pretty useless because it would be someone telling you what you wanted to hear.”

  • A retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002 (Glenn L. Carle) says:

    [Coercive techniques] didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information…Everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

  • A former top Air Force interrogator who led the team that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has conducted hundreds of interrogations of high ranking Al Qaida members and supervising more than one thousand, and wrote a book called How to Break a Terrorist writes:

As the senior interrogator in Iraq for a task force charged with hunting down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader and mass murderer, I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse. But that’s only the past.

Somewhere in the world there are other young Muslims who have joined Al Qaida because we tortured and abused prisoners. These men will certainly carry out future attacks against Americans, either in Iraq, Afghanistan, or possibly even here. And that’s not to mention numerous other Muslims who support Al Qaida, either financially or in other ways, because they are outraged that the United States tortured and abused Muslim prisoners.

In addition, torture and abuse has made us less safe because detainees are less likely to cooperate during interrogations if they don’t trust us. I know from having conducted hundreds of interrogations of high ranking Al Qaida members and supervising more than one thousand, that when a captured Al Qaida member sees us live up to our stated principles they are more willing to negotiate and cooperate with us. When we torture or abuse them, it hardens their resolve and reaffirms why they picked up arms.

He also says:

[Torture is] extremely ineffective, and it’s counter-productive to what we’re trying to accomplish.

When we torture somebody, it hardens their resolve … 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.

And he repeats:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

He said last week:

They don’t want to talk about the long term consequences that cost the lives of Americans…. The way the U.S. treated its prisoners “was al-Qaeda’s number-one recruiting tool and brought in thousands of foreign fighters who killed American soldiers.

  • The FBI interrogators who actually interviewed some of the 9/11 suspects say torture didn’t work
  • Another FBI interrogator of 9/11 suspects said:

I was in the middle of this, and it’s not true that these [aggressive] techniques were effective

  • The FBI warned military interrogators in 2003 that enhanced interrogation techniques are “of questionable effectiveness” and cited a “lack of evidence of [enhanced techniques’] success.
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously found that torture doesn’t work, stating:

    The administration’s policies concerning [torture] and the resulting controversies damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.

  • General Petraeus says that torture is unnecessary, hurts our national security and violates our American values
  • Retired 4-star General Barry McCaffrey – who Schwarzkopf called he hero of Desert Storm – agrees
  • Former Navy Judge Advocate General Admiral John Hutson says:

    Fundamentally, those kinds of techniques are ineffective. If the goal is to gain actionable intelligence, and it is, and if that’s important, and it is, then we have to use the techniques that are most effective. Torture is the technique of choice of the lazy, stupid and pseudo-tough.

    He also says:

    Another objection is that torture doesn’t work. All the literature and experts say that if we really want usable information, we should go exactly the opposite way and try to gain the trust and confidence of the prisoners.

  • Army Colonel Stuart Herrington – a military intelligence specialist who interrogated generals under the command of Saddam Hussein and evaluated US detention operations at Guantánamo – notes that the process of obtaining information is hampered, not helped, by practices such as “slapping someone in the face and stripping them naked”.

    Herrington and other former US military interrogators say:

    We know from experience that it is very difficult to elicit information from a detainee who has been abused. The abuse often only strengthens their resolve and makes it that much harder for an interrogator to find a way to elicit useful information.

  • Major General Thomas Romig, former Army JAG, said:

    If you torture somebody, they’ll tell you anything. I don’t know anybody that is good at interrogation, has done it a lot, that will say that that’s an effective means of getting information. … So I don’t think it’s effective.

  • The head of all U.S. intelligence said:

    The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world … The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.

  • Former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke says that America’s indefinite detention without trial and abuse of prisoners is a leading Al Qaeda recruiting tool.
  • The first head of the Department of Homeland Security – Tom Ridge – says we were wrong to torture.The former British intelligence chairman says that waterboarding didn’t stop terror plots.
  • A spokesman for the National Security Council (Tommy Vietor) says:

    The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.

In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts…

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

  • Neuroscientists have found that torture physically and chemically interferes with the prisoner’s ability to tell the truth
  • An Army psychologist – Major Paul Burney, Army’s Behavior Science Consulting Team psychologist – said (page 78 & 83):

It was stressed to me time and time again that psychological investigations have proven that harsh interrogations do not work. At best it will get you information that a prisoner thinks you want to hear to make the interrogation stop, but that information is strongly likely to be false.


Interrogation techniques that rely on physical or adverse consequences are likely to garner inaccurate information and create an increased level of resistance…There is no evidence that the level of fear or discomfort evoked by a given technique has any consistent correlation to the volume or quality of information obtained.

  • An expert on resisting torture – Terrence Russell, JPRA’s manager for research and development and a SERE specialist – said (page 209):

History has shown us that physical pressures are not effective for compelling an individual to give information or to do something’ and are not effective for gaining accurate, actionable intelligence.

And – according to the experts – torture is unnecessary even to prevent “ticking time bombs” from exploding (see this, this and this). Indeed, a top expert says that torture would fail in a real ‘ticking time-bomb’ situation

Indeed, it has been known for hundreds of years that torture doesn’t work:

  • As a former CIA analyst notes:

During the Inquisition there were many confessed witches, and many others were named by those tortured as other witches. Unsurprisingly, when these new claimed witches were tortured, they also confessed. Confirmation of some statement made under torture, when that confirmation is extracted by another case of torture, is invalid information and cannot be trusted.

  • The head of Britain’s wartime interrogation center in London said:

“Violence is taboo. Not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.”

  • The national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush (Donald P. Gregg) wrote:

During wartime service with the CIA in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972, I was in charge of intelligence operations in the 10 provinces surrounding Saigon. One of my tasks was to prevent rocket attacks on Saigon’s port.

Keeping Saigon safe required human intelligence, most often from captured prisoners. I had a running debate about how North Vietnamese prisoners should be treated with the South Vietnamese colonel who conducted interrogations. This colonel routinely tortured prisoners, producing a flood of information, much of it totally false. I argued for better treatment and pressed for key prisoners to be turned over to the CIA, where humane interrogation methods were the rule – and more accurate intelligence was the result.

The colonel finally relented and turned over a battered prisoner to me, saying, “This man knows a lot, but he will not talk to me.”

We treated the prisoner’s wounds, reunited him with his family, and allowed him to make his first visit to Saigon. Surprised by the city’s affluence, he said he would tell us anything we asked. The result was a flood of actionable intelligence that allowed us to disrupt planned operations, including rocket attacks against Saigon.

Admittedly, it would be hard to make a story from nearly 40 years ago into a definitive case study. But there is a useful reminder here. The key to successful interrogation is for the interrogator – even as he controls the situation – to recognize a prisoner’s humanity, to understand his culture, background and language. Torture makes this impossible.

There’s a sad twist here. Cheney forgets that the Bush administration followed this approach with some success. A high-value prisoner subjected to patient interrogation by an Arabic-speaking FBI agent yielded highly useful information, including the final word on Iraq’s weapons programs.

His name was Saddam Hussein.

  • Top interrogators got information from a high-level Al Qaeda suspects through building rapport, even if they hated the person they were interrogating by treating them as human

Postscript: Even if – despite the above – you still believe that torture produces helpful information, you should note that the U.S. government used Communist torture techniques specifically designed to produce FALSE Confessions.

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George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. Jojo

    Well wonderful. So what does work? Saying “pretty please”? “Would you like some ice cream”?

    1. name (withheld)

      It’s true there are quite a few people among the ignorant unwashed masses who think that torture does work. It doesn’t.

      It’s meant to punish, and it’s outsourced to places like Egypt where people with attitudes like yours have no problem treating human beings like insects.

      There are various human and signal intelligence techniques to get most information, and it’s possible that ice cream could play a role.

    2. Jim A

      For the most part, what works is persuading them that they were on the wrong side. That they were perptrating evil and that by helping you they can expunge some of their guilt. It isn’t a particularly quick or easy process.

    3. Tertium Squid

      Why yes – I think ice cream does work way better than torture.

      One of my colleagues was an interrogator during the First Iraq War. He said that the most effective technique was offering prisoners cigarettes.

      Another interesting thing he said is that it was drummed into them that they were obligated to obey the law. Even if a superior told them to do something improper or illegal, THEY would be held accountible for their actions.

      But 1991 was a long time ago…

    4. Francois T

      Google “Matthew Alexander” (a pseudonym, of course) “Iraq” “Military interrogator”.

      You’ll find at least two extensive interviews where he describes what works and why.

      Oh! Yo need some creds Bro? MA is the guy who located Zarkawi, the most dangerous Al Qaeda man in Iraq at the time. It took him 6 HOURS of “soft” interrogation BTW…talk about real [as opposed to political] efficiency.

      After that, it was a simple matter of sending a bomber to obliterate the ultra bad ass.

    5. nonclassical

      Craig Murray, British ambassador to Uzbekistan has divulged
      under oath HOW (U.S.=CIA) torture DOES work-you torture CHILDREN in front of their parents, and sure enough, parents will admit they are TERRORISTS.

      THIS IS COMPLETELY DOCUMENTED in British media…and completely MISSING in U.S. media.

    6. attempter

      So what does work?

      Um, not invading other countries? Not being criminal aggressors?

      Living within your means? Being willing to work for a living instead of robbing around the globe?

      Sorry, didn’t mean to blow your mind like that.

  2. matilda peabody

    You could have got this information from me…long ago. The Silver Tongue gets more “HONEY” Than the honey bee can make.

    Feed the minds with intellect and the rest is “frosting on the cake” Every Terrorist, or Criminal wasborn a human first, give them a little kindness and compassion and watch the human being evolve.

    We have the choice what path we choose, the Mystery is; what makes some choose a life of destruction?

  3. LeeAnne

    There is no reason not to believe that this criminal administration now in charge with CIA wants the fear of torture to accompany its relentless threats of terrorist attacks and ubquitous surveillance.

    This is as evil a government as has existed on the face of the earth. And given the power of its weaponry the most dangerous.

  4. LeeAnne

    Furthermore, this Cheney appearance favoring torture is a CIA/HomeLanda line drawn in the sand.

    Once this line is crossed; that is, once the Americn people tolerate torture, we are all toast. They’ll have airport goons, and everywhere else their free will permits, with the power of torture behind the scenes, in addition to the current visible torture; the affront to personal modesty, defense, and integrity over our bodies now being practiced with the threat of being groped publicly.

    1. name (withheld)

      Let’s be clear though LeeAnne: the purpose will be to harass, intimidate and abuse people, not to get valuable information.

      1. tts

        That line has already been crossed. They already can and do routinely harass people or even mass groups of people. They even have secret courts and it is for all practical intents and purposes impossible to get information out of them since you have to have the courts’ permission to do so first.

        We’re pretty far along the road to fascism and there doesn’t seem to be anything coming to slow this down.

  5. Jim A

    Add to this the fact that life is NOT like an episode of “24.” You DON’T know that this man in front of you has information that you need to save 100s or 1000s of lives. Rather you HOPE that one of the 100s of people you are interrogating knows something that will save lives.

    1. name (withheld)

      In such a situation, the absolute worst thing you could do would be to let on that you knew they had this information. It would be much easier to get if they aren’t on their guard.

  6. Larry B

    I don’t understand the argument here. If torture were an effective means of intelligence gathering, would torture then be morally acceptable? I think not. Whether or not torture is efficacious has no bearing, it is simply evil, regardless.

    1. Tertium Squid

      Look more closely at the links. While many do narrowly apply to the question of whether good information can be extracted in this way, others also describe the true purpose of torture, and the effect of such brutality in a larger social and political context. They help us understand some of the consequences of doing this very bad thing.

      I do agree though. Arguing that we should not torture because it does not work is a bad idea because it cedes the moral high ground and makes the debate merely one of efficacy.

    2. tts

      I would agree however lots of people can’t really think rationally when presented with the “ticking time bomb scenario” so you have to point out what works and what doesn’t rather than discuss ethics and morals with them.

      1. Rex

        A lot of people can’t think rationally when they attempt to think.

        Fox News calls them the audience.

  7. Tertium Squid

    Thanks for that terrific collection.

    George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”

    “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. The Liberal News Chronicle published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.”

    We are not so different from everyone else. Torture has been defined (by Orwell, I thought, but cannot find the quote) as more or less “that which we do not do”. Self-estimation of our goodness informs us of the nature of our actions, and not the other way around. If “we” do it, it must be good.

    In many cases, not until such things are done TO a person does their opinoin of its goodness change.

  8. pebird

    The point is not to get information.  It is to intimidate the opposition and show you are willing to do anything – even to innocents – to get what you want.

    All the talk about ticking time bombs and value of information is a head fake.  

    1. skippy

      Too dehumanize your population (legitimize) its acts against others with impunity (no legal basis) and send a massage to all others (including internal dissidents) that they are beasts to be slaughtered, at leisure, if they so wish.

      Skippy…in the pit or guarding it…choose.

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