All entries for Friday 10 February 2017

February 10, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go (Part 2)

Follow-up to Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go? from Mark Harrison's blog

My recent blog on torture received an interesting comment from Mr Paul Thompson. If you want to see it in the original, go here and scroll down. I thank him for it. I would have replied beneath it, but my reply turned out to be too long for the box. (One of the risks of blogging, is that there is no one to say no to you.) So, here it is, point by point:

Torture or even the threat of torture, when employed on a large scale, often leads to the victims giving up a large volume of information,

I agree.

some of which is useful for intelligence operations.

Hmm. It depends what is meant by "some." How much? Five percent? The interrogator's problem is then: which five percent? It's not enough for information to be useful. You also have to identify it as such, against the 95 per cent that is not useful. If five per cent is the proportion, the odds on identifying it correctly are just one in twenty. That's not good.

Given the relative technological backwardness of the Nazis and the Soviets, they understood well that mass torture was one the most effective methods they had available to find those of their opponents who had gone into hiding.

I have no specialist knowledge of the methods and results of the Gestapo. But the Soviets: that's wrong. The historical records of Soviet counter-intelligence suggest an entirely different story. The Soviet authorities did believe that their opponents had gone into hiding. The primary method of identifying enemies was not information gleaned through torture, but markers of social origin, kinship, acquaintance, and past behaviour. The products of torture were used mainly to confirm the "guilt" of those already identified by other means. There are many historical accounts, from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago to Joerg Baberowski's Scorched Earth, published just last year. (Or would you believe, say, that Marshal Tukhachevskii, whose blood was found on his signed confession, was actually an agent of the Gestapo, as he confessed?)

It is a matter of common knowledge that more technologically advanced tyrannies, like modern Russia, still use torture on a mass scale,

I'll give this a pass, but I'm not happy. Even under authoritarian rule there is a distinction to be drawn between torture as a centralized policy and torture in the more decentralized form of the abuses that are enabled when the abusers know they will not be called to account. This distinction may not matter to the victim, but it is certainly germane to the instrumentality of torture. Still, for the sake of argument, let's move on.

and sometimes gain information that they deem important by this means.

That's fascinating. Is that really common knowledge? How would we know about it? (We should think about modern tyrannies that have collapsed, so that their records are available.) And, how often is "sometimes"? And, shouldn't we ask whether "the information that they deem important" turned out to have at least some external validity? I'd certainly like to know more about this.

The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".

Absolutely. (But we are not discussing torture as a punishment. We are discussing torture as an instrument for gathering information. The victim is being interrogated, not punished.)

The US political system is duty-bound to enforce the constitution,

Near enough. The President swears to "preserve, protect and defend" the constitution. Enforcement relies on the courts. See below.

so there the matter rests.

Yes, that's what I hope. But enforcement relies on the judiciary. So I am disheartened to find the President, who just swore to "preserve, protect and defend," attacking "so-called judges" and calling the courts "political." He doesn't seem to feel the call of duty as strongly as he might, and he encourages his supporters to believe that the situation calls for a strong leader willing to break rules. As I said, it's disheartening. I understand I'm not the only one to feel this way.

For all the hysteria about waterboarding, the US has not and will not ever have a policy of inflicting permanent physical harm on prisoners.

These words mislead, I think. First, they seem to limit torture to those methods that might lead to "permanent physical harm." So methods leading to physical harm that is only temporary, such as rape or the local bruising or burning of soft tissues, are not torture? And permanent psychological trauma, such as that arising from simulated execution, is also not torture?

And then "the hysteria about waterboarding." A line is drawn, apparently, between waterboarding (done before and perhaps could be done again) and "inflicting permanent physical harm" (not done, and never will be, at least as a matter of policy). But everyone can read the account of waterboarding written by my friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, who was required beforehand to sign a contract of indemnification that included the words:

Water boarding is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.

See the words "permanent" and "physical"?

Based on his experience Hitchens concluded: "Believe me, it's torture."

Perhaps you will find time to write about the mass torture and mass murder at Saydnaya prison,

Probably not. It's horrifying, of course. But my aim is to comment only when I can add something based on expertise. On Saydnaya I have none; I can add only what anyone can add who has skimmed the serious media. It's a topic on which others can add more value than me, so why should I compete with them for attention?

a rather more important topic.

Maybe. In terms of immediate human consequences, you're probably right. In terms of what is added to knowledge, perhaps not. I'm a social scientist, so I'm always interested in surprises, because by definition they tell us something we did not know. We already knew that Syrians lived under a vile tyranny. No surprise there. But to hear "What about Saydnaya" as a response to "Let's not go back to waterboarding": that's a surprise.

Before this, I always believed that US constitutional checks and balances were robust. On this matter I still hope not to be surprised.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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  • Thank you for your response, Professor. I will reply here in brief, because of the limit of permissi… by Paul Thompson on this entry
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  • Mr. Harrison, Your view of torture is confused. Torture is certainly morally abhorrent and therefore… by Paul Thompson on this entry
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