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.