Interrogation and Torture: Integrating Efficacy with Law and Morality

| May 2021
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Interrogation and Torture: Integrating Efficacy with Law and Morality, Steven J. Barela, Mark Fallon, Gloria Gaggioli, and Jens David Ohlin, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 624 pp., cloth $99, eBook $79.99.

It is ironic that there exists virtually no systematic research that assesses the effectiveness of torture in gaining accurate information. Interrogational torture is often justified as an effective means to obtain the truth, but torturers and their sponsors have traditionally been unconcerned with probing the truth about whether torture is effective in the first place.

Despite this traditional gap in scientific knowledge, recent years have seen the emergence of a new interdisciplinary science of interrogation. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement to incorporate these findings into national regulations and international standards, such as in the U.S. interagency High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group and current efforts at the UN to draft a universal protocol on noncoercive interviewing.

The editors of the volume Interrogation and Torture—three legal scholars with expertise in international law and national security and one veteran counterterrorism professional—aim to seize on these developments to provoke a shift in debates around the issue of torture and interrogation practices, more generally. They have assembled twenty-two contributions by thirty-six authors from fourteen countries to highlight the state of the art of this emerging research agenda and its implications for questions related to the ethics, legality, and effectiveness of interrogation techniques. The volume is explicitly interdisciplinary, seeking to synthesize research findings from scholars of law, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and political science with real-world insights from seasoned professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, and counterterrorism.

The book’s overarching thesis is that noncoercive interrogation techniques are not only more ethical and more lawful than coercive ones but also more effective than them—both in terms of gaining useful information from subjects and the broader costs and benefits to society. The book has six thematic sections, but the most central to the book’s case is part 2, “The Emergent Science and Effective Practice of Interrogation.” Across four chapters, veteran investigators and leading research psychologists review scientific findings on the relative merits of the “accusatorial approach” to interrogations vs. an “informational” one. The accusatorial approach—familiar to anyone who has watched television police dramas—is aggressively geared toward extracting confessions. Though training of police officers in the United States typically follows the accusatorial approach, research suggests that it increases the likelihood of mistreatment and false confessions.

In contrast, chapters in this section lay out empirical evidence for the effectiveness of an information-gathering, or rapport-based, approach. The goal of such an approach is not to produce confessions but “to elicit as many insights and verifiable details as possible from a subject” (p. 146). Based on decades of psychological research, an informational approach relies on cultivating trust with the subject and uses a range of rapport-based interviewing strategies and empirically based lie detection techniques. Chapter 6 presents research on the realworld track record of informational approaches—first implemented almost three decades ago in England andWales—showing them to be more effective than the accusatorial approach at gaining accurate information from interviewees. In chapter 7, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara draws on a wealth of psychobiological research to argue that the stress that torture imposes on the brains of interviewees severely degrades their ability to recall accurate, truthful information. The chapters in this section make a persuasive case for the superiority of an informational approach. One shortcoming is that the authors tend to not differentiate between interrogations of ordinary criminal suspects and those of terrorism suspects. It would have been helpful to discuss whether these different contexts entail different challenges for applying an informational approach or institutionalizing it in practice.

The book’s other sections provide fresh insights into different dimensions of the law, ethics, and utility of torture in the war on terror, some of which have tended to receive little attention from researchers. Part 3 focuses on the ethical challenges faced by professionals, such as interrogators and psychologists, enlisted by governments to help conduct or advise on coercive interrogation programs. In addition to thoughtful discussions of ethical guidelines, chapters 8 and 10 provide finegrained examinations of how American psychologists came to participate in the U.S. war on terrorism torture program. Other chapters address additional issues from the war on terror, such as the failure of the U.S. military commissions system (chapter 19), the mixed record of the Obama administration on torture (chapter 12), and how the aim of the U.S. torture program to cultivate “learned helplessness” in prisoners constitutes mental torture under U.S. law (chapter 2).

Other contributions draw on new findings to revisit broader perennial questions in torture research, such as the prevention of torture (chapter 17) and ethical arguments for its permissibility (part 5). Two chapters discuss utilitarianism, the philosophical paradigm most commonly invoked to justify torture on ethical grounds. Most notably, Steven Barela reassesses the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writings of utilitarianism’s founder, Jeremy Bentham, whose protorture arguments are often cited by today’s apologists. Barela examines Bentham’s later unpublished writings to show that he ultimately became far more skeptical about the utility of torture than he is often portrayed as today, as he grew concerned that the uncertain gains from torturing potentially innocent people may be outweighed by the broader costs to society from undermining the legitimacy of the legal system.

One additional contribution to note is that of Darius Rejali, arguably the leading scholar on torture in political science. Rejali uses his own landmark 2007 monograph, Torture and Democracy, as a jumping off point to survey the last decade’s advancements in research on the politics of torture, while also thoughtfully reflecting on his book’s own shortcomings. Though it fits less neatly into the editors’ conceptual structure than other chapters, Rejali’s mapping of this body of scholarship will be particularly useful for social scientists studying the politics of torture.

As a guide to the most up-to-date thinking on the science and ethics of interrogation, this book is a highly valuable contribution. Given its wide disciplinary range and substantive breadth, it holds novel and illuminating insights for even the most well-read torture researcher. From a policy standpoint, one particular strength is that it engages policymakers and investigators on their own terms: effectiveness and cost-benefit logics. It may thus serve as a handbook of sorts for how torture opponents can make their case to relevant decision-makers.

One weakness is that while the book examines changes in practice in places like England and Norway, it does less to probe the political and organizational dynamics that allowed such changes to obtain in the first place. To be fair, the question of how noncoercive interrogation techniques come to be institutionalized in practice falls somewhat outside the editors’ framework of law, ethics, and effectiveness, but it is a question that nonetheless inevitably looms over any volume that aims to provoke a shift in practice.

And so we return to the irony I mentioned at the outset. In theory, this volume contains ample material for an interrogator to be persuaded about the practical, legal, and ethical superiority of noncoercive interrogation techniques. But the question remains: are would-be torturers and their sponsors open to being persuaded? History suggests that the answer is often no. So if such proposals are to change actual practice, we must understand why they are not; how political, sociological, economic, and organizational factors contribute to such obstinacy; and how interventions can be designed to counter such factors. Nevertheless, this book is a timely and highly informative supplement for making such efforts.


—Mark Berlin

Mark Berlin is an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University and the author of Criminalizing Atrocity: The Global Spread of Criminal Laws against International Crimes (2020). His research examines the politics of accountability for human rights violations.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 35.1

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