Why Do People Use Torture?

Many experts say torture produces false leads and damages U.S. credibility. Yet, in his new book, George Tenet advocates something that sounds like torture, although he refuses to call it that. If torture doesn't work, why do so many people believe that it does?

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Torture is evil - even its defenders will tell you that. They modify it, though, with the word necessary - necessary evil. Yet you constantly hear this line from the other side of the debate: torture doesn't work.

So if it doesn't work, why does the Bush administration push back against anyone who tries to ban torture or even define techniques like water-boarding as torture? Maybe, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, it's a little too easy to say that torture doesn't work

MIKE PESCA: Former CIA director George Tenet, in his interview on "60 Minutes," refused to use the word torture, but he refused to disavow practices that are banned by international law as just that.

Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA Director): I know that this program has saved lives. I know we've disrupted plots.

Mr. SCOTT PELLEY (Correspondent, CBS News): But what you're essentially saying is, some people need to be tortured.

Mr. TENET: No, I did not say that. I did not say that.

Mr. PELLEY: You're telling me that...

Mr. TENET: I did not say that.

Mr. PELLEY: ...the enhanced interrogation...

Mr. TENET: I did not say that. We do not - listen to me.

PESCA: As a prisoner of war, John McCain wasn't subjected to enhanced interrogation; he was tortured. He has come to conclude that George Tenet is wrong, not just morally but factually.

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Host, "Fox News Sunday"): When George Tenet says, we saved lives through some of these techniques...

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't want to accept it. I don't want to accept that fundamental thesis, because it's never worked throughout history.

PESCA: What Senator McCain was saying on "Fox News Sunday" is the common argument torture doesn't work, that there are no benefits to the information gleaned through torture.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (Writer): I think that that's a bit of wishful thinking.

PESCA: Writer Mark Bowden.

Mr. BOWDEN: This would be a much simpler issue if torture simply didn't work, because there'd be no point in even contemplating it.

PESCA: Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly called "The Dark Art of Interrogation." There, Bowden reported on some cases where torture yielded usable information. There was the case of the captain in Vietnam who captured and used forced on a Viet Cong rifleman in order to uproot a nest of snipers who were picking off his men. Bowden also reported on a case from Germany, where a kidnapper had buried a boy alive.

Mr. BOWDEN: Just the threat of torture was sufficient to get information about where they'd bury the child. In that case, sadly, they arrived too late to save the boy's life.

PESCA: Nevertheless, Bowden thinks torture should always be banned, though he admits that he might want to use it.

Mr. BOWDEN: If I were an interrogator and I had a 12-year-old child buried somewhere, I would threaten the kidnapper with torture, and I might even torture him.

PESCA: He'd hope prosecutors would be lenient with him, just as, under Israeli law, torture is banned but torturers could use the necessity defense in court. They could argue that forced coercion is the only way to have learned information that's saved lives.

Bowden admires the Israelis for at least dealing with the practice head on. In the U.S., we refuse to have that open debate. And that, says University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, is one explanation for the refrain, torture is ineffective.

Professor SANFORD LEVINSON (Law, University of Texas): Even if it works, we really shouldn't do it because it's just wrong. That sounds kind of wimpy, whereas, look, it's just never going to work; it's a bad investment; or it's a stupid investment - then you sound, I think, much tougher minded.

PESCA: But Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent who still trains FBI interrogators, thinks torture is always a foolish strategy.

Mr. JOE NAVARRO (Former FBI Counter-Intelligence Agent): We noticed, from studies that have been done on Nazi interrogation techniques, there were plenty of suspects that they tortured that never broke. Look - torture only guarantees pain; it never guarantees the truth.

PESCA: Torture might yield a blurted-out response, and that response might sometimes be the truth. But even when it is, it will most likely be the last piece of information the torturer gets from the detainee. And, by the way - Navarro notes - that phrase he used, we know from studying the Nazis - it's a little sad when the U.S. has to rely on that particular body of knowledge.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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