Torture, psychology, and the law


in Bombs and rockets, Law, Politics, Psychology, Science, Security

Morty wants a treat

For the darkest day of the year, a couple of torture-related items seem appropriate. Firstly, there is this New York Times piece, which argues that senior officials from the Bush administration should be charged with war crimes, for authorizing and enabling torture. The editorial argues that there is no chance that prosecutions will be sought under an Obama administration, but that he ought to clarify the obligation of the United States and its agents to uphold the Geneva Conventions, as well as reverse executive orders that “eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.”

The prospect of high-level American decision-makers being put on trial for authorizing torture is so unlikely that it is a bit difficult to even form an opinion about it. At the same time, it is likely that nobody thirty years ago would have anticipated the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), or International Criminal Court (ICC). There is no clear reason for which high political office should be any impediment to being tried for war crimes, but it is very unclear how any such prosecutions would fare in the United States. It would certainly be seen as a ‘political’ act, and any connections with international law would likely be the targets for special criticism and scorn from some quarters.

The other story worth mentioning is an experiment conducted by Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University. It was a less intense re-creation of Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority. Like Milgram, Burger found that a startling proportion of the population is willing to torture a fellow human being as part of a scientific experiment. This is when the only pressure placed upon the subject of the experiment is the authority of the actor pretending to conduct it. That naturally makes one nervous about what people would be willing to do when they felt an urgent and important issue justified it, as well as when far stronger sanctions could be brought against them if they did not proceed.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 22, 2008 at 12:15 pm
. December 22, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Tortured Reasoning

George W. Bush defended harsh interrogations by pointing to intelligence breakthroughs, but a surprising number of counterterrorist officials say that, apart from being wrong, torture just doesn’t work. Delving into two high-profile cases, the author exposes the tactical costs of prisoner abuse.

by David Rose
WEB EXCLUSIVE December 16, 2008

. December 22, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Rumsfeld blamed in detainee abuse scandals

Chip Somodevilla / EPA

A bipartisan Senate report released today concludes that decisions made by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were a “direct cause” of widespread detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

“The report, endorsed by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most forceful denunciation to date of the role that Rumsfeld and other top officials played in the prisoner abuse scandals of the last five years.”

R.K. December 22, 2008 at 4:11 pm

The conviction of someone senior (like Rumsfeld) for authorizing torture would be hugely significant, not least for how the world views the United States.

Right now, a lot of people see American rhetoric on human rights as meaningless, given what is going on in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Demonstrating that not even the most senior figures are above the law would draw a sharp line under the past and allow people to have a lot more confidence in how the US deals with its values.

The NYT is right to call for prosecutions.

Robotronic 6000 December 27, 2008 at 3:18 am

you need 2 write more aboot bombs and/or rocketz.


. January 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Taylor’s son jailed for 97 years
19:24 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

“Chuckie” Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, has been sentenced by a US court to 97 years in prison for torture.

. November 12, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Those of us who have been hollering about America’s descent into torture for the past nine years didn’t do so because we like terrorists or secretly hope for more terror attacks. We did it because if a nation is unable to decry something as always and deeply wrong, it has tacitly accepted it as sometimes and often right. Or, as President Bush now puts it, damn right. It spawns a legal regime that cannot be contained in time or in place; a regime that requires that torture testimony be used at trials and that terror policies be withheld from public scrutiny. It demands the shielding of torture photos and the exoneration of those who destroyed torture tapes just a day after the statute of limitations had run out. Indeed, as Andrew Cohen notes, when the men ordering the destruction of those tapes are celebrated as “heroes,” who’s to say otherwise? Check, please.

All this was done in the name of moving us forward, turning down the temperature, painting over the rot that had overtaken the rule of law. Yet having denied any kind of reckoning for every actor up and down the chain of command, we are now farther along the road toward normalizing and accepting torture than we were back in November 2005, when President Bush could announce unequivocally (if falsely) that “The United States of America does not torture. And that’s important for people around the world to understand.” If people around the world didn’t understand what we were doing then, they surely do now. And if Americans didn’t accept what we were doing then, evidently they do now. Doing nothing about torture is, at this point, pretty much the same as voting for it. We are all water-boarders now.

. November 3, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Now, two British researchers are quietly revolutionising the study and practice of interrogation. Earlier this year, in a meeting room at the University of Liverpool, I watched a video of the Diola interview alongside Laurence Alison, the university’s chair of forensic psychology, and Emily Alison, a professional counsellor. My permission to view the tape was negotiated with the counter-terrorist police, who are understandably wary of allowing outsiders access to such material. Details of the interview have been changed to protect the identity of the officers involved, though the quotes are verbatim.

The Alisons, husband and wife, have done something no scholars of interrogation have been able to do before. Working in close cooperation with the police, who allowed them access to more than 1,000 hours of tapes, they have observed and analysed hundreds of real-world interviews with terrorists suspected of serious crimes. No researcher in the world has ever laid hands on such a haul of data before. Based on this research, they have constructed the world’s first empirically grounded and comprehensive model of interrogation tactics.

The Alisons’ findings are changing the way law enforcement and security agencies approach the delicate and vital task of gathering human intelligence. “I get very little, if any, pushback from practitioners when I present the Alisons’ work,” said Kleinman, who now teaches interrogation tactics to military and police officers. “Even those who don’t have a clue about the scientific method, it just resonates with them.” The Alisons have done more than strengthen the hand of advocates of non-coercive interviewing: they have provided an unprecedentedly authoritative account of what works and what does not, rooted in a profound understanding of human relations. That they have been able to do so is testament to a joint preoccupation with police interviews that stretches back more than 20 years.

Watching and coding all the interviews took eight months. When the process was complete, Laurence passed on the data to Paul Christiansen, a colleague at Liverpool University, who performed a statistical analysis of the results. The most important relationship he measured was between “yield” – information elicited from the suspect – and “rapport” – the quality of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. For the first time, a secure, empirical basis was established for what had, until then, been something between a hypothesis and an insider secret: rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.

Accusatory models of interrogation lay great emphasis on body language, partly because the hostile interviewer has already cut off his richest source of information: words. Aggression kills dialogue, as other participants in the Russano study attest:

During the years when she worked on police cases with Laurence, Emily Alison had come to see interrogation as a close relation of addiction counselling. Both involve getting someone who does not want to be in the same room as you to talk about something they do not want to talk about.

Around two decades ago, the practice of addiction counselling was transformed by the application of a simple principle: patients should feel responsible for their choices. Emily wondered if it wasn’t time for interrogation to catch up.

The Alisons’ analysis of the terrorist tapes confirmed this. One of their most striking findings is that suspects are likelier to talk when the interviewer emphasises their right not to. “The more pressure you put on a person, the less likely they are to speak to you. You need to make them feel responsible for their choices,” said Laurence. “You can’t bullshit, you’ve got to mean it.” He slips into character. “Ian, you don’t have to speak to me today. Whether you do or not isn’t up to me. It isn’t up to your solicitor. It’s up to you.

“These are powerful tools to get inside someone’s head,” said Laurence. “But they’re not tricks. You have to be genuinely curious. There’s a reason this person has ended up opposite you, and it’s not just because they’re evil. If you’re not interested in what that is, you’re not going to be a good interrogator.”

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