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The disastrous flaw at the heart of the CIA's torture program

Chinese soldiers capture US troops during the Korean War in 1951
Chinese soldiers capture US troops during the Korean War in 1951

Put aside, for a moment, the very important and entirely correct point that torture is a moral abomination that the US should never have embraced, whether it worked or not. Even put aside the conclusions from the just-released Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that torture turned out not to have worked.

There's something crucial we shouldn't lose sight of: Torture was a terrible idea from the beginning because it was clear from the way the program came together that the CIA's torture regime was never going to work, because it was based on copying Chinese torture methods designed not to elicit truth but to force false confessions.

The 525-page Senate Intelligence Committee report released today, on the Senate's even larger report investigating the CIA torture program, concludes that torture is not effective at yielding useful intelligence. Interrogators and intelligence experts have been saying for years that torture is not effective. But none of these warnings or investigations should have been necessary, because the CIA torture program was designed from the beginning in a way that made it clearly destined to be ineffective.

The reason for this is very simple: the CIA's torture program was based in large part on the US military's torture resistance training program, known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), which was itself based on Chinese military interrogation methods that were not designed to yield useful intelligence, but to yield false confessions. So the CIA program was built on torture methods used to force people to tell lies — exactly the opposite of what the program was ostensibly supposed to achieve.

That point was made simply and effectively in this short series of tweets by a pseudonymous Twitter user named ZeddRebel who often comments on national security matters:

The answer to this question is both extremely complicated — Jane Mayer's award-winning The Dark Side is in many ways a book-length investigation into this question — and extremely straightforward.

Torture is simply a terrible way to elicit true information, but it is an extremely effective way to cause physical and emotional pain and to compel people to, for example, read out a false confession you've pre-written for them. That is what torture does, so naturally when the CIA went to adopt torture, it had to borrow from pre-existing torture programs, and all the successful torture programs were designed to cause pain and elicit false information, because that is what torture does.

The CIA could not borrow methods from a torture program that was successful at eliciting factual information because no such program exists, nor will it ever. But that was a lesson that the CIA, and the Bush administration, had to learn by a trial and error that has wreaked terrible and entirely foreseeable havoc on America, its place in the world, and most especially its victims.