Torture doesn’t work … except when it does

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 waterboarding 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 indispensable, component of the war against the Algerian resistance, 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 by au 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.]


13 comments on “Torture doesn’t work … except when it does”
  1. J. Moye says:

    I recall conservatives came up with “The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact” as a rebuff to those who objected to Bush & Company repeatedly violating it, in letter and in spirit.

    My response then is my response now – The Constitution IS a suicide pact, in the sense that, as Americans, we agree among ourselves to be bound by it, even at physical risk to ourselves. We’re supposed to be the Good Guys. Good Guys are supposed to do the right thing every time, even when it’s inconvenient, messy or dangerous, because that’s what it takes to be one.

    Learned Constitutional scholar Jeff Spicoli put it best – “What Jefferson was saying was, ‘Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get [and keep] some cool rules ourselves – pronto – we’ll just be bogus too!’ Get it?”

    1. 20committee says:

      Anyone who cites Mr Spicoli can’t be all wrong.

  2. Tom Nichols says:

    No, no, torture is okay now. Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty makes it clear that waterboarding the snot out of people actually works. Now that we’re a safe distance from the Bush administration, Hollywood’s on board with torture. That’s part of the “new normal,” along with drone strikes, “classified” attacks on U.S. assets, and other stuff that I generally approve of but never thought I’d see the Left applauding so heartily. (To be fair, the stalwarts at The Guardian are in a major snit, but they’re not going to be voting at the Oscars: <a href="; Cheney would love this movie )

    1. 20committee says:

      So hard to keep track of what’s considered “progressive” at present. Was a lot easier when the Party just had edicts and ukases to explain the current line.

      1. OSS says:

        Code Pink anyone? IIRC they had a mini protest in Pakistan to protest drone strike a few months ago. Other than that, they seem to have been silent for Obama’s entire admin.

        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.

        As someone who accepts that torture works, it was impossible not to be repulsed by by the Bush Administration and its various toadies advocating torture to cover up their grotesque incompetence. Tying the hands of the military early in the hunt for OBL, then plunging into the quagmire of Iraq are both mistakes that could and should have been avoided.

        America was constantly bombarded with the message that Al Qaeda was going to hit us at home, so we had to accept unpleasant things to avoid it. If that’s the case, border security and immigration law enforcement were both steps that should have been completed way, way before bringing out the wet towels.

  3. Orwell says:

    You’re trying to say that the Nazis, who had no problem with mass murder, felt compelled NOT to torture because of law? The SS didn’t torture those in the resistance? The SS didn’t wipe out entire towns simply to make a point?

    Your conclusions are nonsense.

    1. 20committee says:

      Your inability to distinguish between Abwehr & RSHA speaks volumes. Try again.

  4. markottawa says:


    “Torture Helps

    In “The Day of the Jackal” (1973) the crucial information that eventually leads to the assassin hired by the OAS to kill President de Gaulle derives from torture (to death, more here); oddly enough that did not seem to cause a stir at the time

    Mark Collins

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