What If Torture Worked?

Today Dan Drezner asks what social scientists would do if their research revealed that torture worked. I have a different question: How come we don’t know which interrogation methods work best and which ones don’t? Forget waterboarding for a minute. What about all the other techniques?

I still haven’t figured out a way to get UCLA approval to test interrogation methods on undergraduates, even with voluntary participation and the promise of free donuts. But the Pentagon is another story. Our military has had two wars and thousands of detainees since 9/11 to figure some of this out.

As far as I can tell, DOD hasn’t done much. The Army Field Manual — the Interrogation Bible du Jour — is not some cutting-edge “how to” interrogations guide loaded with the latest evidence. The techniques in that book are there mostly because they have been in previous Army Field Manuals for decades. My favorite part of the Manual (last updated in 2006) notes that internal studies of interrogation methods in Iraq and Afghanistan “are still being studied.” No urgency there.

Meanwhile, interrogators in the field appear to be on their own. Several former interrogators have told me that they never knew whether the information they got from detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan was worth anything; their reports went up the chain of command and disappeared. It’s hard to improve processes without measuring outcomes– kinda like asking a medical student to perfect his surgical skills without ever learning whether the patient lived or died.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.