Yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report on CIA interrogations conducted in the wake of September 11. The committee concluded that the CIA misrepresented so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding as far less brutal and far more effective than they actually were.
There is still no clear answer as to whether the CIA was legally or morally justified in their enhanced interrogations. The 6,000-page report, written by a panel composed entirely of Democrats, is complemented by a more forgiving 100-page dissent, written solely by Republicans. Former CIA officers maintain that their methods did not legally constitute torture, and that information gleaned from waterboarding saved countless innocent lives.
But one thing is clear—the CIA’s methods were never justified based on science. The techniques described in the report fly in the face of what numerous scientific studies have shown about the effectiveness of procuring information from detainees and the indistinct border between aggressive interrogation and outright torture.
Torture makes suspects lie
Scientists have suspected for some time that torture is one of the worst ways to obtain accurate information. But in a 2009 review paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science, neurobiologists reported that the extreme stress caused by aggressive interrogations could actually induce false memories.
Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist and coauthor of the paper (cheekily entitled “Torturing the brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques”) told Scientific American that the conventional wisdom—that suspects will be motivated to reveal information to end an interrogation—is dead wrong.
“This model of the impact of extreme stress on memory and the brain is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence," she said.
In fact, when the brain and body are subjected to extreme stress, the resulting physiological changes can actually affect learning and memory. Under these conditions, suspects may unintentionally incorporate their captors’ words and phrases into false confessions and distorted memories.
Science says waterboarding is probably torture
One of the justifications for enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding (one version of which dates back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition) was that it did not officially constitute torture. This was based on the assumption that the simulation of drowning did not have any lasting health effects. Unfortunately that assumption, too, was based on bad science.
In 2011 Dr. Allen Keller, a professor at New York University’s School of Medicine, told Scientific American that the effects of waterboarding could cause hypoxia, pneumonia, organ failure and heart attacks (depending on preexisting conditions). These outcomes are in addition to the physical effects of emotional trauma, and the fact that you can actually scare someone to death.
In 2009, the Obama administration officially recognized waterboarding as a form of torture. “Make no mistake about it,” Keller told us in 2011. "The physical and psychological and social aspects are all interdependent and feed off one another.”
Solutions based on science
As the Federation of American Scientists pointed out this morning, the Senate report, for all of its 6,000 dense pages, is surprisingly light on remedies. Now that it seems clear that the U.S. actually tortured people (and that we got very little out of it), what should the government do moving forward?
The FAS has a few suggestions in their post, but here’s an additional one that is particularly timely. Right now, Congress is debating whether or not it is in our national interests to continue funding social science research.
Social science—which includes sociology, political science and psychology—was capable of informing policymakers for years that the science did not support enhanced interrogation techniques. It doesn’t seem like anybody listened.
Perhaps it is time to renew (or even increase) funding for social science, untied to any political agenda. Insights from these studies might have prevented the U.S. from acting in vain—and might forego the repeating of past mistakes.