Is Torture As Ineffective As It Is Abhorrent?

Known as torture by some and the shameful euphemism “enhanced interrogation” by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the American Psychological Association (APA), is currently under investigation for their putative aiding and abetting of the CIA in such programs. The effectiveness of torture as a post-9/11 intelligence gathering tool has been questioned in a damning report released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, based on a six year investigation into black site operations around the world.

David H. Hoffman, Chicago lawyer and former inspector general and federal prosecutor, has been hired by the APA to investigate accusations regarding their involvement in CIA torture programs. Despite the initial urge to cry “whitewash”, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter, James Risen, the main accuser of the APA in his book, Pay Any Price, feels “confident that Hoffman will investigate whether there was collusion between APA staff and government officials to manipulate APA ethics policy to give legal and ethical cover for torture.” More light is unlikely to be shed on the matter until the formal report is issued to select APA board members in March 2015.

At odds with both recent allegations and the APA’s refusal to outright ban members from involvement in torturous interrogation, the APA, as well as the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA), issued statements in outrage at the two psychologists that were shamed in the Senate report.

The report disclosed that they received over $80 million to run a company for the development and implementation of the CIA’s psychologically and physiologically abusive interrogation program, including sleep deprivation, waterboarding, rectal feeding and other gruesome torture techniques. One of the two psychologists, James Mitchell, was reportedly a member of the APA at the time. Seeing as he is no longer a member, APA claims that the two psychologists “are therefore beyond the reach of our ethics enforcement program.”

While many consider torture a morally abhorrent crime against humanity, that’s a philosophical matter. The only justifiable and testable argument for the reportedly global use of torture tactics is that they produce reliable intelligence. However, Diane Feinstein, the Senate Committee Chairwoman that released the report, stated that “at no time did the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe is the justification of these techniques.”

In a perfect world, justifying the effectiveness of torture would be considered nonsensical. Back in reality however, according to a study conducted by the American University’s School of Public Affairs, simply witnessing “torture” being effective in a video clip increases the chances of signing a petition in support of such tactics. If this effect, dubbed the “Hollywood Effect”, can be extended to the countless movies that collectively comprise many hours of effective torture viewing pleasure, then one could assume that our views on torture may easily fall prey to subjective bias.

Yet, for the majority of us that are lucky enough to have a lack of personal experience with torture, published research that could enlighten us further is near non-existent, and instead there are a great number of studies probing how best to treat torture victims’ horrific traumatization. It is important to acknowledge that while confronting detainees with excruciating pain could possibly lead to the disclosure of accurate information, many torture survivors report that the truthful information they revealed was intentionally incomplete or mixed with false information, often leading to false confessions and fabrication of information in an effort to stop the pain.

How can we expect the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques to be reliably effective when they are designed to “create a destabilizing sense of shock; undermine an individual’s grasp on reality; and provoke internal psychological division, self-conflict, and confusion”, as reported in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation?

In surprisingly stark contrast, adopting an adaptive rapport-based interrogation style in which suspects are treated with respect, dignity and integrity, provides an effective approach for suspect cooperation and reduced use of counter-interrogation tactics, like silence or repeating scripted responses. These results are based on the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology’s study at the University of Liverpool, analyzing 181 police interrogations with international (Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-inspired), paramilitary and right-wing terrorists.

As with the two protestors arrested on a “Torturers Tour” outside Dick Chaney’s residence on January 10th, we must place our hopes that Hoffman won’t be easily silenced, and he will be equally ruthless and fearless should the accusations against the APA hold true, whether the torture techniques were effective or not.


Alison, L., Alison, E., Noone, G., Elntib, S., Waring, S., & Christiansen, P. (2014). The efficacy of rapport-based techniques for minimizing counter-interrogation tactics amongst a field sample of terrorists. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20 (4), 421-430 DOI: 10.1037/law0000021

Costanzo, M., & Gerrity, E. (2009). The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate Social Issues and Policy Review, 3 (1), 179-210 DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-2409.2009.01014.x

Kearns, E., & Young, J. (2014). If Torture is Wrong, What About 24?: Torture and the Hollywood Effect SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2483131

McCarthy M (2014). Psychologists’ firm was paid $81m to implement CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 349 PMID: 25510396

Putnam FW (2013). The role of abusive states of being in interrogation. Journal of trauma & dissociation : the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Dissociation (ISSD), 14 (2), 147-58 PMID: 23406220

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s redacted report:

Documentary: Doctors of the Dark Side.

Image via View Apart / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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