Torture Does Not Work

Updated on February 16, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.


U.S. President Ronald Reagan said “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” During the administration of George W. Bush the light was extinguished, and torture was quietly approved of.

A day after being sworn into office President Barack Obama ordered a halt to all torture activity by U.S. forces. He said that by condoning torture America had “lost its moral bearings.” However, MSNBC quotes Wells Dixon, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, “His (Obama’s) record on torture has been abysmal, to the point of obstruction, concealment, and ultimate complicity.”

When asked about waterboarding in June 2016, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump said “I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.” His comment was greeted by cheers.

Robust Response to 9/11

George W. Bush made reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous characterization of the United States on one of the darkest days in American history.

On the evening of September 11, 2001 a grim-faced Mr. Bush went on television to speak to his shocked nation. He told the audience, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And, no one will keep that light from shining.”

That’s when the human rights trouble started. Mr. Bush, and his vice president, Dick Cheney, decided that in their war on terror they would not hesitate to fight dirty. They were going to operate outside the rule of law.

Here’s how Cheney put it in a February 5, 2009 interview with Politico “Protecting the country’s security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business. These are evil people and we are not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”

Waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay

Suspected terrorists were rounded up and imprisoned in the Guantanamo Detention Center (Gitmo).

Many of the men in Gitmo Detention Centre were subjected to what was called “enhanced interrogation methods.” This included sleep deprivation, being made to stand naked in a cold cell for long periods, slapping with an open hand, and a nasty little procedure known as “waterboarding.”

Gitmo detainees in 2002.
Gitmo detainees in 2002. | Source

Here, waterboarding is described by ABC News: “The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised, and head slightly below the feet. [A cloth] is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.”

ABC News quoted John Sifton of Human Rights Watch as saying that waterboarding makes the person believe “they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law.”

Author Says Torture Does not Work

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College, Portland, Oregon. His 2007 book Torture and Democracy exhaustively examines the topic of using force on prisoners to extract information.

In the book, Rejali attacks head-on the belief among torture’s apologists that its use in Algeria in 1957 enabled the French to win an important victory against terrorists.


Having studied the autobiographies of some of the torturers and the now-open archives of the war in Algeria, Rejali concludes: “… the French won by applying overwhelming force in an extremely constrained space, not by superior intelligence gathered through torture … In fact, the battle shows the devastating consequences of torture for any democracy foolish enough to institutionalize it.”

He quotes one of the French torturers, Jean-Pierre Vittori, as saying: “As the pain of interrogation began they talked abundantly, citing the names of the dead or militants on the run, indicating locations of old hiding places in which we didn’t find anything but some documents without interest.”

And, writes Professor Rejali, better intelligence can be gathered by not torturing. He points out that during World War II the British captured all but three of the several hundred German spies in England without torturing anybody.

Many of the German agents were, in fact, turned into double agents who radioed fake coordinates back to Germany that directed V rockets to explode harmlessly in farmer’s fields.

Protesters Express a Minority Opinion in U.S.

Torture Fails

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence came to the same conclusion as Darius Rejali. In its December 2014 report on CIA torture of terror suspects the committee found that:

  • “The CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were not effective.
  • “The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public.
  • “The CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed.
  • “The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public.”

Protest against torture in Washington, D.C.
Protest against torture in Washington, D.C. | Source

The committee is not alone in its findings about the ineffectiveness of torture. Shane O’Mara is a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin and author of the 2015 book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation.

He says torture can harm the parts of the brain associated with memory and so the subject of the brutality is likely to give faulty information.

This is borne out by psychiatrist Charles Morgan. In 2006, he carried out an experiment with a group of special operations U.S. soldiers. They were placed in a stressful environment that included sleep deprivation, scant food supplies, and temperature extremes―all standard CIA enhanced interrogation techniques. According to Newsweek, the soldiers developed “remarkable deterioration in memory.”

Ethical considerations stop academics from studying the effects of waterboarding, but a lot of science exists on its probable results. Cold water is known to change brain activity. Lack of air shuts down cognitive function. The fear caused by torture impairs memory.

A BBC documentary reported on the waterboarding of a British soldier undergoing voluntary waterboarding. Within a few seconds he confessed to “being born a bunny,” although he had no recollection of this when the torture stopped.


Bonus Factoids

  • Amnesty International says the torture and ill-treatment of civilians occurs in 82 percent of the 160 countries it surveyed in 2015.
  • The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it as “… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
  • According to a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll “Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists …”


  • “Donald Trump Renews Support for Waterboarding at Ohio Rally: ‘I Like it a Lot.’ ” Ben Jacobs, The Guardian, June 29, 2016.
  • “Cheney Warns of New Attacks.” Jim VandeHei, et al, Politico, February 4, 2009.
  • “CIA’s Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described.” Brian Ross, ABC News, November 18, 2005.
  • “Torture and Democracy.” Darius Rejali, Princeton University Press, June 28, 2009.
  • “Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program.” Dianne Feinstein, December 2014.
  • “Science Shows that Torture Doesn’t Work and Is Counterproductive.” Rupert Stone, Newsweek, May 8, 2016.
  • “On Torture, Obama’s Hands Aren’t Entirely Clean.” Zachary Roth, MSNBC, October 12, 2014.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


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