US President Donald Trump has been in office for a week and a half and has already issued hardline executive orders on trade, healthcare and immigration. A draft executive order also emerged that appeared to pave the way for a return to the programme of torture and secret detention launched by the CIA after 9/11.
However, that order is only a draft, and it has been disavowed by the White House. On Friday, at a conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump said he will not be resuming “enhanced interrogation techniques” after all. Those techniques are banned under US law, as the draft order acknowledges, and it would be hard to bring them back.
That still leaves the question of effectiveness. Even if these methods are illegal, surely they are useful in eliciting vital intelligence? Trump said in his first interview since taking office that he still believes torture “absolutely” works, a view echoed on this side of the pond by Conservative MP Bob Stewart and UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.
But the historical record shows clearly that torture is ineffective. Information obtained under duress is misleading, because tortured captives will say anything to stop the pain. Professional interrogators overwhelmingly reject coercion for that reason, and scientific studies of interrogation point in the same direction.
Less widely acknowledged, but no less important, is the fact that torture undermines cooperation on counterterrorism, both internationally and domestically. The fight against Islamic State spans dozens of countries and involves many different agencies—it is vital that the various players share intelligence and coordinate their efforts efficiently.
Torture clearly undermines cooperation within countries. After 9/11 the CIA set up a highly secretive program to capture, detain and interrogate terror suspects. At first the FBI was on board, dispatching agents to assist in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the agency’s first high-value captive. But when the CIA started torturing Zubaydah, the Bureau withdrew its personnel and refused to participate any further.
This was a significant blow, because the FBI had far more experience when it came to interrogation than the CIA. Indeed, the agency was a spy service, not a police force, and typically did not detain or interrogate captives. When the programme started after 9/11, the CIA at first had no trained interrogators or prison facilities of its own.
The US military, which had a cadre of experienced interrogators, also kept its distance. In Iraq the commander of special operations forces, General Stanley McChrystal, eventually stopped his troops from abusing captives. He developed a massive interagency counter-terrorism effort, with CIA, NSA, and FBI personnel all working together. The CIA programme involved no such teamwork, and relied heavily on contractors.
There was also division inside the UK government over MI6’s alleged complicity in CIA torture. It was revealed last year that the former Director-General of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, had written to the Prime Minister complaining about MI6’s apparent involvement in renditions. She reportedly stopped MI6 staff from working with MI5 personnel, undermining collaboration between the agencies.
There is also the issue of cooperation between branches of government. In the US, Congress and the courts initially went along with the CIA programme. Congress was briefed about the interrogation techniques, and the courts blocked legal challenges on grounds of state secrecy. But, since then, opposition in Congress has intensified, and a new lawsuit against two psychologists who designed the CIA programme has been allowed to proceed.
Torture also harms international counter-terrorism partnerships. States may be reluctant to share information or provide logistical support if there is a chance of complicity in torture. European governments initially aided the CIA programme after 9/11, hosting secret prisons, providing intelligence and allowing flights over their territory. But their role then became public, leading to scandal and the risk of legal exposure.
Foreign states became increasingly averse to helping the US, as various Bush-era officials have emphasised. Former State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger said recently that “Many European governments became reluctant to share intelligence information with us because they believed our intelligence agencies might use the information to commit violations of law.” Philip Zelikow, who served in the State Department under Bush, echoed this last year, saying that, because of torture, “foreign partnerships are significantly degraded and it affects your whole counterterrorism capability.”
Torture, due to its illegality, also breeds excessive secrecy, another impediment to intelligence-sharing. If a foreign state receives information from a captive held in secret detention, it might be impossible to follow up and verify the intelligence. Zelikow stressed the damaging secrecy caused by torture and he would know, having led the 9/11 Commission, which was prevented from having direct access to the CIA detainees.
It should also be noted that foreign states are now operating under greater legal constraints. Recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights have condemned Macedonia and Poland for involvement in CIA activities, and other cases are pending. Moreover, the UK Supreme Court has just ruled that a suit against the British government for alleged complicity in the rendition and torture of two Libyans by the CIA could proceed to trial.
While torture hampers collaboration between nations, it also poisons relations with foreign populations. By mistreating captives, a state alienates local people, a crucial source of intelligence on terrorist activities, and potentially drives them into the arms of terrorist groups. A recent study by Harvard’s Carr Center found that torture “greatly damaged national security” because it “incited extremism in the Middle East,” among other things.
Indeed, 176 retired general and admirals, including McChrystal, signed a letter to Trump opposing torture in mid-January. And, let us remember, McChrystal’s intelligence chief was Michael Flynn, now Trump’s national security advisor. Another firm opponent of torture in Iraq was James Mattis, now the secretary of defense, who apparently persuaded Trump not to bring back waterboarding.
These men surely know that torture would harm America’s efforts against IS. It is not just a matter of law or ethics, but of winning or losing. And Trump hates losers.