The 4 Freedoms Library

It takes a nation to protect the nation

Torture doesn’t work … except when it does

December 11, 2012

One of the more tedious aspects of the George W. Bush presidency, especially its seemingly interminable second term, was the ultimately useless media debate about the efficacy of torture in interrogating prisoners, particularly terrorism suspects. This became so intense and so repetitious, plus so engagingly vapid, that somewhere in the back of my mind it’s always 2006 and the only phrase I can utter is: “ticking time bomb scenario.”

In the end, the vast amount of pundit energy expended on this matter amounted to nothing, since torture is one of those Big Issues – like, for instance, Guantanamo Bay and drones – which all right-thinking people were very flustered about until January 20, 2009, but which no decent sort talks about since that day since, you know, it’s different when Obama does it.

What the legion of anti-torture writers (meaning those opposed to Bush-era torture, of course) emphasized above all was not only that  applying waterboards and perhaps electrodes to people isn’t just morally awful, since that was a slam-dunk ethically speaking, but that it was ineffective too. It was never enough to pontificate about the evils of torture – who to the left of Satan and/or  Don Rumsfeld would actually say it was a moral good? – rather it had to be demonstrated that it was operationally ineffective too.

That this was a tough sell did not deter some bien-pensants, who asserted that torture was simply ineffective, indeed a “failure,” as a counterterrorism tool. It would be surpassingly kind to note that such a read was based on a highly selective approach to the facts, as well as buckets of wishful thinking. Yet, in this, progressives were assisted by the former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan, who explained at great length that the neanderthals at the CIA were morons and, by the way, torture isn’t helpful. To reach this conclusion he cited his interesting yet less-than-vast personal experience, which allowed him to state unequivocally: “Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps.”

Needless to add, such sweeping statements made Soufan, briefly, the toast of the liberal smart set and the most popular G-Man among progressives since, well, ever; think of him as the anti-Hoover. One must be very hard-hearted not to have a twinge of sympathy for what the Left was trying to say, since their opponents in the public debate were so repulsive. The pro-torture orbit offered counterarguments from Bush flacks who excelled at explaining the effectiveness of waterbo... from the safety of the FoxNews greenroom, individuals who seemed eager to kill Al-Qa’ida with their mouths but who, in real life, had visibly not won the war against donuts.

To make this debate even more confusing, there was a wing which maintained that the United States has much to learn from Israel, since that country has dealt with terrorism for decades and A) has decided to stop torturing terrorist suspects, or B) does torture people, on occasion, which is totally objectionable on legal and moral grounds except when done by Israel and/or friends of Israel. That the latter argument was made eloquently by people otherwise regarded as strong defenders of civil liberties ought to indicate how difficult to follow and generically repulsive this issue became during W’s presidency.

The problem was that the opponents of torture-lite – since no torturer worth his salt would consider waterboarding to be bona fide torture – had only a scant and highly selective reading of the record to back them up. Everyone who has looked at the matter objectively knows that torture has always been part of the interrogator’s repertoire and is especially important when dealing with tough nuts to crack like terrorists and agents of top intelligence services.

Nevertheless, in recent years the U.S. government, too, has gone to great lengths to rewrite history to airbrush out unsavory bits like torture. Hence we got the U.S. Army’s celebrated new doctrine on counterinsurgency, Field Manual 3-24, which was greeted with media fanfare in 2006 – making it the first and probably last such Field Manual of its kind – and which portrayed the (failed) French effort to suppress the Algerian rebellion in the 1950s in a highly sanitized fashion. FM 3-24′s Algeria, which was painted as a success of sorts despite its obvious failure, included hardly a mention of French internment policies, which put something like ten percent of that country’s population in something like concentration camps. Neither was there any discussion of France’s widespread use of torture, which veteran French intelligence officers boasted was a key, indeed indi..., refusing to alter the facts even when Paris put them on trial for saying the unpleasant truth about the Algerian war. Undeterred by such a slavish devotion to accuracy, FM 3-24, under the guidance of General Petraeus, painted a happier portrait of that war which was nothing if not politically useful for the Bush administration (whether such institutionalized dishonesty led Dave to other lies,such as, say, Paula, is a matter which this blog, not being a gossip site, will not take up at present).

Certainly the Soviets, who possessed the largest and quite possibly most effective intelligence services in the last century, were anything but squeamish about torture. Subjecting “class enemies” to unpleasantness in a manner suitable for a Dante novel was routine KGB procedure, especially but by no means exclusively when Stalin ruled the Kremlin. Torture was a key element of dealing with terrorists and insurgents, and they employed it on an industrial scale, to effect. Certainly torturing people suspected of anti-state activities, often on flimsy evidence, was standard operating procedure when the KGB crushed opposition in Ukraine and the Baltic states into the 1950s – a dirty war which has been forgotten in the West but which stands as a testament to the Soviet model of counterinsurgency, an amalgam of brute force, aggressive counterintelligence, and political outreach which succeeded masterfully in crushing armed dissent as long as the Soviet Union lived. It goes without saying that such tactics and strategy were vastly more effective at imposing a foreign and unwanted system than anything accomplished by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

The centrality of torture to Soviet counterintelligence, at all levels, is perhaps why few Westerners have cared to look at it in detail, since it’s anything but a pleasant story. Enthusiasts of “benign” counterterrorism of the sort imagined byau courant thinkers and MSNBC presenters will find little to praise in the Soviet experience, and plenty to lose sleep over. Torturing people, up to and sometimes passing the point of horrible death, was a cornerstone of how the KGB defeated spies, saboteurs, and terrorists.

One of the few Western experts to look at the Soviet system in detail merits a read by anyone wanting to know the real story, as opposed to happy talk, about how the KGB won its battles. Stalin’s Secret War, published in 2004 by Robert Stephan, stands as a unique study of the very unpleasant but notably effective effort waged by Soviet intelligence to save themselves and their state from Nazi invasion and annihilation. The Nazi-Soviet struggle from 1941-1945 was the greatest, costliest combat in human history, so it’s not altogether surprising that the intelligence war between the Germans and Soviets was the vastest spywar of all times, too. Stephan, a CIA officer, offers a scholar’s balanced perspective with an intelligence veteran’s eye for detail. His account of how Soviet counterintelligence fooled the Nazis and made intelligence a critical force-multiplier in the struggle to save the USSR ranks as one of the most important books about espionage in recent years.

Stephan’s account embellishes the essential storyline known for decades: that the Germans lost the spywar in the East through a combination of arrogance and inefficiency. The Nazi intelligence system was a hot bureaucratic mess, unlike the relatively centralized Soviet model, and deep down the Germans, fresh from quick, decisive victories over most of Europe, didn’t think good intelligence really mattered much, since they were so tactically superior to the Soviets that strategic victory would result, no matter what. When that wishful thinking epically failed to pan out in late 1941, when the frozen Wehrmacht failed to reach Moscow, the Germans entered the spywar in earnest against the Soviets, but despite some talented efforts Berlin never got the upper hand over Moscow.

Throughout the conflict, Soviet spies bested the Germans, running rings around Berlin’s efforts to establish agent networks behind Soviet lines, on the KGB’s home turf. In a manner which the Nazis could not fathom, therefore did not, the Soviets subverted every major German effort to conduct strategic intelligence against them; in most cases, Nazi efforts were turned against them, without Berlin being aware they were being had. Stephan’s work makes clear that offensive counterintelligence was a Soviet speciality which paid strategic dividends for Moscow in the Great Patriotic War.

Why the Soviets excelled at this is a complex question, yet Moscow’s success can be boiled down to a few basic characteristics. The Soviets took intelligence seriously, they resourced it properly, they possessed effective tactical and strategic doctrine in espionage matters, and they were utterly ruthless in applying whatever means were required to defeat the Germans in the spywar. To blunt Nazi espionage, the Soviets scooped up enemy spies, real and imagined, by the thousands, and even deported civilian populations – like, say, the entire Chechen nation, a half-million strong, dispatched to Siberia in 1944 – which Moscow assessed could be vulnerable to German wiles. And there was torture. A lot of it. Torture so diabolically effective that many suspects broke before any physical coercion was actually employed. The KGB’s reputation for brutality and ruthlessness was often as powerful as any corporeal pain.

This the Germans were aware of, and some Nazi intelligence officers complained during the war that their methods were insufficiently coercive to be able to complete with Stalin’s secret legions. Difficult as it may be for post-moderns raised on Spielbergian fantasies to believe, Nazi Germany could be a strangely legalistic place at times, and German counterintelligence was constrained from anything like the brutality which Soviet spies employed every hour of every day.

Soviet methods were brutal, pure and simple: “a gallery of fanatics and alcoholics in a chamber of horrors,” recalled a veteran of the program. This was off-limits to the Germans, since Nazi interrogators who crossed such lines, torturing suspects, were subject to severe courts-martial by the Wehrmacht on a routine basis. Unlike the U.S. government since 9/11, the Germans punished those who crossed established lines. This became a sore-point among the German counterintelligence officers charged with going against the Soviets, and losing. Major Johannes Gaenzer and Captains Helmut Daemerau and Kurt Koehler, veterans of the spywar against Moscow, told their American debriefers after the war that “they were greatly handicapped by an express order from Admiral Canaris [head of German military intelligence] forbidding physical pressure as an aid in interrogation.” They added that the “Russians generally fear pain but not death so that ‘intensified methods’ would probably have led to greater successes.”

The Germans were on to something as any intelligence service going up against those who fear pain, but not death, would attest. It is well and good to state that one will not torture, no matter the circumstances. As a former counterintelligence officer, I am proud to state that my country will not – rather, ought not – torture suspects, no matter the circumstances. But let us dispense with sweet-sounding nonsense that torture does not work. It does. Civilized countries ought not use it all the same. Truth beats lies, especially when discussing such weighty matters.

[N.B. The comments here are mine alone and, of course, not reflective of any positions, policies, or sentiments of the U.S. Department of Defense.]

Tags: Torture, does, doesn’t, except, it, when, work,

Views: 70

Replies to This Discussion

The pro-torture orbit offered counterarguments from Bush flacks who excelled at explaining the effectiveness of waterbo... from the safety of the FoxNews greenroom, individuals who seemed eager to kill Al-Qa’ida with their mouths but who, in real life, had visibly not won the war against donuts.


I recently came across a description of the torture techniques used on the Nazis who confessed at Nuremberg.  One of the details I remember was that there was not one of those who was convicted had a working set of testicles by the end of the torture sessions.

If the same concern expressed for the immorality of torture was used by the liberal-left in 1945, there might not have been a single conviction at Nuremberg.

Really?  That's weird, because I thought the convictions at Nuremberg were based on external evidence, not confessions.  And if you watch videos of the court sessions, the Nazis don't look as if they've been tortured.  In any case, that can't be the case for Hermann Göring.  He was only watching the court case on the hope of getting off.  When he was convicted, he killed himself with poison that had been smuggled to him.

I can't remember where I read it.  I'm no expert on WW2.  A quick google showed that the most prominent sites about this were either apologists for jew-hating National Socialists or jew-hating InterNational Socialists (promoting George Galloway AND holocaust denial).

But this looks like a fairly conventional report on the use of torture to extract confessions/information used in the Nurmberg Trials.

Personally I don't see that there is a moral argument against torturing the enemy (but then I don't see there is a moral argument about executing the enemy either).  I think that "war crimes" is a sham, as is "crime against humanity".  It's all a mechanism to glorify the UN mandate.  The issue for me is how to determine that information extracted under torture is useful or not.

The Nuremberg trials started in Nov 1945 and lasted a year on the first 20.  After that, a further 4 trials convicted another 80 people over the next 3 years, so 100 people in all over 4 years.  The Nuremberg trials were about many things - establishing some principles, about giving justice and about making propaganda (for the Soviets).

The Daily Mail article doesn't mention Nuremberg.  It has a photo, with the classic negative hint by comment "nobody knows how they were treated".  But a simple look at any of the videos is enough to tell you that they haven't had their testicles crushed.

The article continues with a photo of some blindfolded Germans and the comment "they may have been forced into untrue admissions".  They may have taken a day trip to the moon, which may be made of green cheese in the unexplored bits, for all we know. 'May' is quite a big word.

It talks of some other evidence, but that was for trials in Hamburg, they weren't part of the Nuremberg series.  The Nuremberg trials were a defining moment in law, international relations, and many other things.  Its important to put them in the right frame.

It talks of torture, but many of the things named, like cleaning toilets with a small cloth, would not even be recognised as such by seasoned operators.  That article is very misleading.  Obviously its his job to blow up the issue.

As regards evidence, the court was, thanks to the German mentality, swamped with written and video evidence.  There wasn't any need to torture anyone, and, given the quality of the German defence lawyers, that would have been used to void the whole process.  There was about 1000 times more things going on than any need for torture ... slanting it in that way helps neither the event nor you.

Apart from the tons of written /photographic evidence, they had the evidence of non-Nazis, of former Nazis, and of those convicted.  A decision was taken to use the verbal evidence of non-Nazis over the rest, because of its emotive effect.  The original prosecutor was so upset because of this prioritization of verbal over written evidence, that he left!

This story continues then with the trial of the Japanese war criminals.  This raise a new hornets nest political and legal issues. Let me try express it this way: if anybody had interfered with the trial process by using torture on the defendants  the governments themselves would probably have had him shot.  

Which oddly enough is what Britain wanted to do to the Nazi leaders in the first place, and skip the Nuremberg trial, but that's yet a third story.

I think that "war crimes" is a sham, as is "crime against humanity".  It's all a mechanism to glorify the UN mandate.

Saddam Hussein pleaded that he could not be charged for what he did inside Iraq, because, as ruler of the country, he was acting within his jurisdiction.  Its a minefield.  And to make matters worse, with the infiltration of the UN, those dodge principles are not even applied equally to everyone, and you know who the favorite bad guys are :-)

Personally I don't see that there is a moral argument against torturing the enemy (but then I don't see there is a moral argument about executing the enemy either).

I think the bigger question is: "Is there a constitutional issue against using torture to ensure the survival of the society (against a ruthless and dangerous enemy that also uses brutal means)".  It goes back again to this Western delusion that we beat the Nazis, in spite of their ready use of brutality (regarding our 'torture', one swallow does not a Summer make).  The Russians beat Stalin, and they did it with every bit of brutality at their disposal.

Nope, you mistake me for someone who gives a damn :) I don't have a pony in this race.  But I do think that nothing should be beyond questioning.

If I was that interested in the issue of whether or not torture was used on the people on trial at Nuremberg I'd have made a note of the website where I saw it last week.  Since I have no moral qualms about torturing or killing the enemy I think it would be stupid not to have just executed those we held responsible for the war and for the worst behaviour within the war.  We won the war (at considerable cost, some would argue that it bankrupted our country ever since).  We had the right to do what we liked with the losers.  They would have assuredly been exceedingly brutal with us if the tables had been turned.

If you think the absence of evidence is proof that something did not happen, good luck to you.  We aren't even allowed to know what happens in Cabinet meetings until 30 years after the event (until the late 1960s it was a 50 year exclusion), but decisions are most certainly made even though we are not permitted to know on what basis.  We aren't even allowed to know what went on in a jury room.  Once again, decisions are made and we are not allowed to know on what basis.  As the recent collapsed trial of Vicky Pryce showed, certainly some juries make those decisions based on information that was not part of the legal process (it only came out in her case a) because she was high profile, b) because the jury bothered to ask for guidance as to whether or not they could do that).  In 1982 a male friend of mine told me had sex with the relatively minor pop singer George Michael; it was another 15 years or so before anyone accepted that George Michael was gay, and I had to endure people telling me that I suffered from some mental problem in claiming he was gay.  It wasn't provable that he was having sex with men in 1982, but it not being provable did not alter the information provided to me (which information probably would not stand up in court, as it would be one testimony against a denial).  If hundreds of men kept it secret that they'd had sex with George Michael in those 15 years, there must be a vast ocean of things which are being kept secret that would be considered shocking if revealed.  It's astonishing that so little does get revealed, when one of the most famous people in the world is able to claim black is white for 15 years.

So I think it's naive to believe that we would be told the truth if torture was used leading up to the Nuremberg trials.  

The assassination team run by Hardy Amies during WW2 was kept secret until recently.  That was something that most people would have considered glorious not shameful, yet still it was kept secret for almost 70 years.  With something as emotionally charged as the idea of torturing those convicted at Nuremberg, I do not think we will ever know the truth.

If you think the event needs my help, you vastly overrate my importance.  No doubt anyone who tries to discuss the idea of torture at Nuremberg or any related trials will be accused of holocaust denial.

Alan Lake said:

There was about 1000 times more things going on than any need for torture ... slanting it in that way helps neither the event nor you.


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