Torture Leads to Lies

By Susan C. Strong

The administration’s torture policy is driven by fear and false assumptions. It’s time the public learned the truth about pain-tainted information.

Despite Mukasey’s confirmation and the next round of holidays coming on, progressives must not let up on the torture issue now. It has great power. It goes to the core of what it means to be an American during the George W. Bush era. And it’s a powerful wedge for all our foreign policy and domestic issues.

The administration’s main argument for their “alternative interrogation techniques” is still the need to get useful information to better protect Americans. Outcry against trusting pain-induced, pain-tainted “information” is growing. Nevertheless, Senators Schumer and Feinstein’s recent votes for Mukasy show just how far we still have to go in framing the torture issue for the American public. If the public changes its mind, the legislators will too.

There are a lot of valid ethical, practical, and moral ways to criticize “alternative interrogation” practices, but the most powerful, broad-based appeal is that information gotten by painful methods most certainly breeds lies, and lies taken for genuine military intelligence threaten our safety. So now we need two things: l. a sound bite like “torture or not, pain breeds lies, and lies mean danger,” or just “torture breeds lies, and lies mean danger,” and 2. a very simple, visually graphic way of communicating these ideas, as the sound bite opens up media space.

Why do we need very simple verbal and visual ways of communicating these realities? The reason there is still support for torture as a tactic in this country is that some people make false assumptions about it, based on their temperaments. Many people in our country need to be able to almost see a thing, hear it, taste it, or smell it before they are able to get how it really works. These frightened mainstream citizens imagine that if they knew something, and someone hurt them, they would tell what they knew. So we need to develop video clips, ads, and other graphics that depict the real story about pain-tainted information.

How can we do that? Let’s sketch two scenarios to see how this works out in reality. Number one: say you have, as we know we have, a lot of men and boys in custody who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when they were caught; these people actually know nothing at all. But our people hurt them until they say something. Possibly our military “checks out” this tainted bunch of lies, and finally, if our side has any integrity at all, they discover that they were fed a bunch of lies. But in the meantime, by tormenting “little people” who really did know nothing, they have created some new, seriously angry enemies, both in the prisons, in their home countries and families and around the world.

That’s one model. Let’s look at the other scenario: say our side has gotten hold of some real Al Qaeda operatives. They inflict pain on them until they “talk.” Again, the prisoners are going to tell lies, if they do talk. If our military personnel are trained to give only name, rank, and serial number, and to withstand torture themselves, just think what real Al Qaeda personnel must be trained to do: withstand torture and/or lie too. Maybe withstand torture and then finally, in the end, tell lies, so that it looks real.

If I can think of this scenario, so can Bin Laden, and long, long before me. Bin Laden must be laughing very hard at us. Along with believing in the lies of his followers, we are falling smack dab into the rest of his torture trap — the more we inflict pain on prisoners held without due process, the more the Islamic world (and the rest of the world too) grows to hate and distrust us, the more America’s image as the shining city on the hill is besmirched-just the effect Bin Laden is trying to create.

Real experts in military intelligence are unanimous in saying that inflicting pain is definitely not the way to get valid information from suspects. The latest article detailing this well known fact can be found in The New Republic, October 22. Other kinds of trust-inducing methods do work, and intelligence experts have the case studies to prove it. Even in domestic police work, there is startling new evidence of how often false confessions are made under even light or no duress at all. See “What Makes Criminal Suspects Give a False Confession?

The administration’s torture policy is, at rock bottom, driven by fear and supported by public fear. In Rory Kennedy’s excellent documentary, Ghosts of Abu Graib, one witness said that right after U.S. forces took Bagdad, the American leadership panicked, because they couldn’t understand the people, the language or the culture, and they couldn’t find out what was really happening on the street or why. That was when they started using “alternative interrogation techniques” on ordinary Iraqis, who actually knew nothing at all. The Americans needed information, any information at all, to satisfy the frightened people in D.C., so they set out to get something, anything, and it really didn’t matter at all if it was just a pack of lies spit out by ordinary Iraqis, in order to stop the pain.

The only way to fight that kind of fear is with a bigger fear-fear of pain-induced lies, deliberate or not, that really do threaten our safety. Just saying “we don’t torture” isn’t even a fig leaf, as long as we use pain to get so-called “information.” (To stay current on this issue, see the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.)