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Does Desire for Revenge Explain CIA Practice of Severe Interrogation?

15/12/2014 15:14 GMT | Updated 14/02/2015 10:59 GMT

If torture, or 'severe interrogation', is so ineffective in gaining useful intelligence - as is widely believed - why did the CIA persist with it over such an extended period?

An academic psychologist and lawyer may have come up with a possible answer, implicating the psychological state of those who engaged in these practices, which have now been so roundly condemned.

Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood studied a broad national sample of US residents, uncovering the desire for harsh interrogation is closely associated with a yearning to punish. How practically effective harsh interrogation or torture is, appears 'squeezed out' by a stronger desire for revenge.

While the study addressed the lay public's attitude toward interrogation - it might be possible to extend this to the question of what motivated the CIA. These agents may have been 'doubly' motivated by vengeance, given repeated failures in intelligence could be held responsible for successful terror attacks.

This analysis might suggest our intelligence organisations are driven by unthinking emotion, rather than a dispassionate analysis of what actually works.

The authors of the study (the late Kevin Carlsmith was at Colgate University, USA, at the time of publishing the original paper, and Avani Mehta Sood was at Princeton University, but is now Assistant Professor of Law, University of California Berkeley School of Law), conducted their research before the recent revelations over CIA's use of torture.

This means it might have been possible for those responsible for oversight of the CIA to anticipate the intelligence services' flawed strategy, no matter how covert, and prevent it, many years ago.

Their study, published in 2009, was inspired by President George W. Bush vetoing a bill in March 2008 that would have prohibited the Central Intelligence Agency from using ''any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations".

The authors point out this bill would have precluded severe interrogation methods such as waterboarding (strapping a detainee face-up on a board while dousing with water to simulate drowning), prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mock executions, electric shocks, dislocation of limbs, asphyxiation, exposure to attack dogs, application of lighted cigarettes to ear canals, and withholding of food, water, or medical care.

Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood quote that in a radio address broadcast to the nation in March 2008, the President asserted, ''The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror" .

Their study was subsequently published in the 'Journal of Experimental Social Psychology', exploring a theory that those who advocate and defend harsh interrogation techniques may be driven by other psychological forces. They outwardly express the belief that the 'ends justify the means', as did the director of the CIA when recently attempting to defend his organisation, but in fact, it's the desire for revenge, which motivates.

Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood argue that the effectiveness of torture, as measured in terms of genuine intelligence collected, may in fact not be the key issue at all. Instead, much more important might be the desire to harm those who have attacked us (or those who are associated with them), and humiliate those who have made us feel vulnerable.

This need for revenge may explain the American public's scant attention given to the Abu Ghraib abuses during the 2004 presidential election.

Entitled, 'The fine line between interrogation and retribution', this study examined the motives of ordinary US citizens in their support of severe interrogation techniques. Data were collected through an anonymous on-line survey with a broadly nationally representative sample.

Participants were informed that interrogations could range from very mild (asking questions) to extremely severe (''aversive, degrading, painful, and in some cases cause permanent physical and psychological scars"). They were asked to use a scale (from ''extremely mild" to ''extremely severe") to recommend an interrogation severity for a suspect who could be withholding information that might prevent lethal attacks on soldiers and innocent civilians.

The study found that people view severe interrogation methods as an extension of punishment, and are therefore more likely to endorse such techniques when they are used upon someone who ''deserves" to be punished.

All participants were presented with a fictional case study of an Afghani detained by US and Coalition forces on suspicion of terrorism. Participants learned that at the time of capture, the suspect made his living as a shepherd.

Some participants in the psychology experiment were told that Farid had been a member of an extremist Muslim group since his early teen years, had supported the Taliban when they were in power, and had been an active member of the insurgency from 2002 to 2005--during which time he set numerous roadside bombs, attacked civilians who cooperated with Coalition forces, and participated in ambushes that killed four US Marines.

These participants were further informed that Farid had since withdrawn from the insurgency and had had little or no contact with enemies of the Coalition Forces, but had been captured while tending his goats near to a camp of Taliban insurgents.

The results suggest that people use the same psychological system in their heads in making decisions about interrogation harshness and punishment severity.

If the primary motive behind harsh interrogation is to impose on the target his just deserts, then it would be only his history of bad acts, and not belief in the effectiveness of the interrogation, that should matter. And, indeed, this is what the experiment found.

Republican voters, from these results, appeared to experience significantly stronger needs to punish through harsh interrogation, than Democrats do. Republicans generally support more severe sentences for criminal offenses, hence perhaps their backing of more severe interrogation methods amounting to torture. Again a similar psychological mechanism appears to underlie the decision to use severe interrogation, as does the desire to punish.

Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood point out that support for the most extreme form of punishment--the death penalty--has been shown to arise more from revenge than whether it's effective at deterring criminals.

Given that death penalty backing is a way of assessing how driven you are by the need to punish, another study cited by Kevin Carlsmith and Avani Mehta Sood, analysing US public opinion on the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars, uncovered evidence that the people's support for waging these wars was linked to favouring the death penalty.

The study entitled, 'An eye for an eye: Public support for war against evildoers', and published in the journal 'International Organization', found the need to punish, and death penalty support, were related not only to backing invasion of Iraq, but also to approval of bombing near civilians, feelings of pride, and indifference to the Iraqi people.

When the electorate feels threatened, strong emotion kicks in, which politicians, the military and intelligence services can possibly exploit.

This psychology explains why war and torture have always been so puzzlingly difficult to reason against, no matter how evidently pointless, destructive and counter-productive they are.