Friday, March 21, 2008

Quote of the Day: Loch K. Johnson

"In sum, the articles point to a central finding, one not so much confirmed by rigorous empirical inquiry as it is felt to be true by professionals in the field (the 'art' side of the subtitle, I suppose). That conclusion: pain, coercion, and threats are unlikely to elicit good information from a subject. (Got that, Jack Bauer?) As one writer puts it, 'The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.' The authors hedge their bets, however, by suggesting repeatedly that more research needs to be done on this question. (Any volunteers for these experiments?)"
That was Loch K. Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Georgia reviewing a collection of articles and studies called Educing Information: Interrogation--Science and Art on the CIA website (via Arts & Letters Daily).

There's a line in the 1998 John Frankenheimer spy thriller Ronin where Robert De Niro talks about being interrogated. A horrified colleague asks him if he spilled his guts or not, and De Niro says, that yes, he told all. "How'd they get to you," the colleague asks, bracing himself for a tortture story.

"They gave me a grasshopper," Says De Niro.

"What's that?"

De Niro: "Let's see, one part Creme de Menthe..."

I think of that scene when I think about torture: isn't it often easier and more reliable to extract information through deceit than by force?

I also think about Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives identify with their captors. Under extreme duress, won't most of us say anything to make pain go away?

I also wonder if the idea that torture doesn't work isn't a liberal one. That all science aside, conservatives tend to be predisposed to blunt instruments and liberals to squeamishness about violence -- neither one of them really understanding why torture seems okay or not okay.

Joel Surnow, the creator of Fox's 24, is a pal of Rush Limbaugh.

This passage, from a recent New Yorker profile of Surnow, is interesting:
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.
The italics are mine. I should admit at this point that I have never watched a full episode of 24.

Surnow directed three episodes of another, lesser series about international intrigue -- the USA network's televisionization of the Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita. In that series, which ran from 1997 to 2001, an elite international counter-terrorism group turns a rebellious drug addict into a killing machine. LIke 24, there are interrogators who use very big hypodermic needles full of nameless chemicals to extract information. But I've always thought they were some high-tech form of De Niro's grasshopper -- something to loosen you up, like Sodium Pentothal (aka "truth serum"), and not a drug that causes extreme pain.

In real life, according to a Washington Post article from 2006, "There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling."

Apparently the CIA's MK-ULTRA program, started in 1953, was in part an attempt at finding a truth serum.

The Post article also mentions some studies of a hormone produced by the brain called oxytocin. It's been used to help produce both uterine contractions and lactation, but some scientists in Switzerland studied its affects on trust:
About 130 college students were randomly given a snort of oxytocin or placebo. Half were then designated "investors" and were given money. They could keep or transfer some or all of the money to a student "trustee," whom they did not know and could not see.

The act of transferring money tripled its value, creating a big payoff for the trustee receiving it. That person could then keep it all or acknowledge the investor's trust by returning some portion.

The investors getting oxytocin on average transferred more money than those getting placebos, and twice as many -- 45 percent vs. 21 percent -- showed maximal trust and transferred it all. Interestingly, oxytocin had no effect on how much money trustees shared back with their investors, suggesting that the hormone acted specifically to promote trust in situations where there was risk and uncertainty.

Paul J. Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, helped supervise the Swiss experiment. He later went to a meeting called by DARPA and presented the findings. When he was finished, a military scientist asked him: "How do I use this stuff tomorrow?"

Zak said he dodged the question. He observed that classic interrogation techniques, in which one person acts as the "good cop" and creates a bond with the prisoner, probably already makes use of the brain's own oxytocin. He added that, "we are just showing you the neurophysiology behind it."


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