Interviewing, Interrogation, and Torture

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Interviewing, Interrogation, and Torture

Earlier this year someone we knew was concerned when they found out we were going to a place where a local opposition politician was reputedly boiled in oil by the powers that be. Another participant in the conversation noted that it was ok, because they didn’t use trans-fats.

While amusing, to an extent this captures the level of the debate about America’s use of torture.

Now, we are certainly not experts in the use of torture. As investigators, however, we know a lot about interviewing, and we happen to be trained in the Reid method of interrogation (, which has proven to be extremely effective within the law enforcement community.

The Reid method has been attacked by Amnesty International ( We think that the cases cited in the article reflect abuse of the technique – and any technique can be abused – since the Reid technique emphasized the need to avoid coercion, and to make sure that corroborating detail is provided so that that the investigator can make sure that the confession is true. In addition, it is made clear that there are classes of people for whom the technique is inappropriate, such as those who are very young, those who are mentally deficient, and those from cultures so terrified of police that they will confess to anything rather than risk endangering their families.

In addition, the article’s condemnation of creating a social situation where the crime can be justified doesn’t hold up to common sense. To understand this, imagine that you have been falsely accused of sexually molesting your grandchild. Is there any social justification that would convince you to confess to this false charge? No! If you tell an innocent person you have evidence of them committing a crime, they will invariably tell you that you are full of crap: No amount of social engineering will overcome the simple fact that they didn’t do it.

Is torture equally resilient? There are two issues here. The first, of course, is what constitutes torture. The government has been supporting, as not constituting torture, techniques such as waterboarding, for use of which the United States has in the past sought the death penalty in war crimes trials. We consider the discussion of whether techniques we have historically prosecuted as torture have mysteriously transmogrified into not being torture as sub dig, and will leave it to our elected officials.

The moral argument put forth in favor of these techniques usually devolves to something on the order of “If it were your child/spouse/parent at risk, wouldn’t you want us to do everything we could?” Much the same way, perhaps, that if your (fill in relative of choice) needed a kidney, wouldn’t you want to take a stranger to a motel, get them drunk, remove a kidney, and leave them sitting in a bathtub full of ice.

This brings us to the question of whether torture is effective. The answer to this question is a clear “depends on what you mean by effective.” We have, culturally, a lot of experience with torture. Whether assuring the purity of the faith in the Spanish Inquisition, or dealing with the evil of witchcraft, torture has played an integral part. Since the War on Terror began as the Crusade against Terrorism, it is no great surprise that torture is playing a part in this Crusade war.

In truth, torture was equally effective in getting confessions from heretics and witches. The total number of persons who were executed for witchcraft throughout Europe hovered, as best as we can tell, around 30,000, which is roughly equivalent to the number killed in the Spanish Inquisition. We have no doubt that the techniques are as effective today as they were in the past, and equally have no doubt that we can get those on whom we use it today to confess to being heretics or witches. That said, there’s no reason to believe that information we gain by torture today will be more reliable than will their confessions of heresy and witchcraft.

Christianity has changed, and we like to think that most Christians no longer believe that you will go directly to Heaven if you are killed participating in a Crusade. Thus, no matter how sound torture may have been on a religious basis in the past, the ability to induce the tortured to confess to being heretics and witches may not be a sound basis for use of torture as a current-day intelligence gathering tool.


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