Skip to main content

Torture Does Not Work

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

A Stain on America

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, that light was extinguished, and torture was quietly approved.

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 viewers: “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. 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.

What Is Waterboarding?

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.”

Professor Rejali determined that 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.

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.

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.

The Intimidation Factor

Torture is not used exclusively as a means of extracting information, however unreliable it might be. Russian forces in Ukraine are known to be using torture on civilian captives.

Here's a May 2022 report from Human Rights Watch:

“In 17 villages and small towns in Kyiv and Chernihiv (Ukrainian) regions visited in April, Human Rights Watch investigated 22 apparent summary executions, nine other unlawful killings, six possible enforced disappearances, and seven cases of torture. Twenty-one civilians described unlawful confinement in inhuman and degrading conditions.”

Reports have come in from various other locations in which Russian troops have tortured and executed civilians in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions and numerous other international accords.

The purpose of these war crimes is not to gather intelligence but to frighten the population into not resisting the illegal occupation. But it can backfire and stiffen the resolve of occupied people to fight back. This happened in France in 1940 after the Nazi German occupation in 1940 and the use of torture and execution to intimidate the civilian population.

The historylearningsite reports that “The French Resistance played a vital part in aiding the Allies to success in Western Europe—especially leading up to D-Day in June 1944. The French Resistance supplied the Allies with vital intelligence reports as well as doing a huge amount of work to disrupt the German supply and communication lines within France.”

There is mounting evidence that Russian atrocities are provoking stronger determination among Ukrainians to fight back.

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 . . . ”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor