'24' is fictional. So is the idea that torture works
Suspects subjected to extreme pain will say anything to end their agony. So how can we trust the ‘secrets' they reveal?
April 23, 2009
It is Day 6, between 10.00 and 11.00 in the hectic schedule of the television series 24, and a normal day at work for Jack Bauer of the Counter Terrorism Unit. “People in this country are dying, and I need some information. Now are you are going to give it to me, or do I have to start hurting you?” Inevitably, he does. A few lurid torture scenes later and the terrorist confesses, the civilised world is saved for another hour or so, and Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is hurtling towards his next violent confrontation with the forces of evil.
This is the central plot of 24, in many respects the only plot of 24, a brilliantly constructed, wildly popular, strikingly timely series based on a single premise that also happens to be untrue. 24 is fiction, and so is the notion that torture produces results.
As the torture debate rages in the US, the only defenders of extreme interrogation methods are those who have been involved in authorising them, and they rely exclusively on the Bauer defence: pain and fear are effective tools for extracting information, and therefore necessary.
Defending the use of “coercive interrogation”, Dick Cheney insists that utility is paramount: “I know specifically of reports... that lay out what we learnt through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.” The ends justify the means. Yet there is precious little evidence that extreme interrogation techniques do produce those ends.
Torture is morally repugnant and illegal, but also frequently useless. It certainly extracts confessions, but the resulting intelligence is usually flawed, and often dangerously inaccurate. Instead of undermining insurgency, routine abuse of captives has precisely the opposite effect.
The key example is Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan al-Qaeda trainer captured in Pakistan in 2002. He denied knowing of any links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, but, under torture, “remembered” that Iraq had trained Islamic terrorists in the use of weapons of mass destruction. His evidence formed the centrepiece of George W. Bush's pre-invasion speech: “We've learnt that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gases.” Al-Libi's “confession” was entirely false, but by the time the CIA retracted the claim, the war was under way.
A person confessing under torture is motivated solely by the need to end the pain, which means telling the person wielding the electrodes whatever he wants to hear. The truth is irrelevant. Indeed, the greater the agony, the more likely is the victim to say whatever is expected. Once one lie has been extracted, more lies follow to back it up.
The Allies in the Second World War learnt that lesson early on. While the Gestapo employed verschärfte Vernehmung (“enhanced interrogation techniques”, the term favoured by the Bush Administration) British and American interrogators adopted far more sophisticated methods, using psychological pressure that produced extraordinary results.
“Violence is taboo,” wrote Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens [2 posts back at http://investorshub.advfn.com/boards/read_msg.aspx?message_id=37425584 ]
, the fearsome monocled martinet who ran Britain's wartime interrogation centre in London. “Not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.” Torture fuels insurgency, as the French discovered in Algeria. The extreme violence of the second intifada has been directly linked to the mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners after the first. Britain discovered from its experience battling the IRA that violent repression could be profoundly counter-productive.
The so-called “ticking bomb” hypothesis is deployed to justify extreme interrogation, claiming that an imminent threat to civilians could be averted by using physical violence to extract crucial information from a detainee. But in the multilayered interplay of terrorism and counter-terrorism, that scenario is largely imaginary. Such situations arise only on TV. On average Jack Bauer encounters a “ticking bomb”, and someone who must be tortured to defuse it, 12 times a day.
Most law enforcement experts regard torture as unproductive. It is a central pillar of law that testimony obtained through coercion is inadmissible. In his new book How to Break a Terrorist, Mathew Alexander [3 posts back at http://investorshub.advfn.com/boards/read_msg.aspx?message_id=37424935 ]
, a former US army interrogator, argues from personal experience that non-violent interrogation is much the most effective method of extracting useful intelligence.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of 9/11, was waterboarded 183 times in one month, and “confessed” to murdering the journalist Daniel Pearl, which he did not. There could hardly be more compelling evidence that such techniques are neither swift, nor efficient, nor reliable.
Yet the idea that torture works has become deeply embedded in popular culture, thanks in large part to Jack Bauer, whose onscreen behaviour both reflected and reinforced the supposed correlation between inflicting pain and saving lives.
I can think of no other fictional character who has had such a direct influence on world events. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Chief under Bush, declared that 24 “reflects real life”. The Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went farther, defending the non-existent for committing the inexcusable: “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”
As the Obama Administration ponders whether to prosecute members of the Bush Administration who approved harsh interrogation methods, it is indeed time to convict Jack Bauer. Strip away the Bauer defence and waterboarding is revealed for what it is: unnecessary, unproductive and immoral.
It is Day 5 of 24, between 06.00 and 07.00, and Jack Bauer is hard at work doing what he does best. As he prepares the torture implements once more, his victim pipes up, offering a little shard of truth amid the fantasy, reflecting real life. “A man will say anything under torture, this won't mean a thing.”
Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/ben_macintyre/article6150151.ece
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How Jack Bauer's TV violence set tone for policymakers
Tom Baldwin: Analysis
April 21, 2009
It is easy to forget how the atmosphere in Washington after September 11, 2001, allowed policymakers to cite Jack Bauer, the fictional hero of Fox TV's 24, as some sort of moral compass.
Bauer, who used torture to extract information that prevented the slaughter of innocents, was cited by the likes of Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary, to justify policies including “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
To give the theory an academic sheen Alan Dershowitz, a law professor at Harvard, President Obama's alma mater, set out “the ticking-bomb scenario” in 2002 in which a terrorist who has planted a nuclear device receives some robust questioning.
Seven years later the publication of more than 100 pages of clinical legal prose explaining how far interrogators could go in slamming a suspect's head against a wall (albeit one designed to reduce the possibility of lasting injury) make deeply disturbing reading.
General Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, believes Mr Obama's decision to disclose them was a profound mistake because it allows enemies to know the “outer limits” of what intelligence officers will do. He has claimed that “fully half” of the Government's information about al-Qaeda's structures and activities came when “coercive interrogation” was used.
George Bush has said that such tactics led to the capture of al-Qaeda operatives and “saved innocent lives” by thwarting plots to strike at US Marines in Djibouti, fly aircraft into office towers in London, attack Los Angeles or detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in America.
Even Robert Grenier, who served as the CIA's top counter-terrorism official before being removed from his post because of his concerns about some of these practices, stated: “The most important source of intelligence we had after 9/11 came from the interrogations of high-value detainees.”
Others, however, insist that much of the useful information could have been elicited without resorting to what many believe was torture.
Under coercion Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the twin towers attacks, also “confessed” to a great deal which was almost certainly untrue. This included the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and plans to assassinate Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II.
The former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel told The New Yorker magazine [at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=8 in "The Black Sites", http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mayer (at http://investorshub.advfn.com/boards/read_msg.aspx?message_id=22004848 ; see also (items linked there and in) preceding and following)]
that Mr Mohammed, with no prospect of tasting freedom, has only one gratification left in life — “to portray himself as the James Bond of jihadism”. Security services on both sides of the Atlantic complain they wasted years following up false leads produced by the CIA. Asked recently if he was aware that any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through such methods, the FBI director Robert Mueller said [at http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2008/12/torture200812?currentPage=4 in "Tortured Reasoning", http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2008/12/torture200812 (my next post, a reply to this post)]: “I don't believe that has been the case.”
Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd. (emphasis added) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6135859.ece
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