President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled that it may push to lift a U.S. government ban on “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that most experts describe as “torture.” A draft executive order made public by The New York Times and other outlets this week also instructs the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to consider opening secret overseas detention centers, or “black sites,” that the previous administration outlawed in 2009. The potential moves reopen a question that most scientists considered closed: Does torture work?
Trump has argued that torture forces detainees to divulge information that professional interrogation techniques fail to elicit. He reiterated that belief in an interview with ABC News that aired yesterday. When asked whether he wants to bring back waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, Trump said: “I [want to] do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.” Most experts who study interrogation, and some individuals who conducted interrogations and later went public, disagree.
The same debate played out during the administration of former President George W. Bush, after it was revealed that U.S. officials were routinely torturing detainees to extract information relevant to the then-called War on Terror. The justification at the time was that torture extracted vital intelligence. Scientists poured cold water on that idea. In 2009, for instance, Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin, told ScienceInsider that beyond its moral repugnance, the scientific evidence indicated that torture doesn’t work. Since then, “Nothing has changed, of course,” O’Mara says. “If anything, the accumulating body of evidence is even more definitively against the Trump position.” Scientists have found that the extreme stress of torture impairs memory and creates false memories, and can induce psychosis.
The government’s strategy under Bush was to tweak definitions so that waterboarding was not classified as torture. But that won’t fly, says Metin Basoglu, head of the Trauma Studies section at the Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College London. “Our work shows that waterboarding is one of the most traumatic forms of torture. Scientifically, there is no question about this issue … so one cannot administer these techniques and remain within the bounds of the law at the same time.”
Two scientific societies are urging Trump to back away from enhanced interrogation. “We are concerned that, if signed by President Trump, this order could open the door to interrogation practices that are now illegal and have been deemed cruel, inhuman, and degrading to detainees” Antonio Puente, president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., stated yesterday. APA drew fire a few years ago when critics accused it of providing cover for torturers by allowing CIA to shape the wording of its professional code of conduct. The scandal forced APA’s former leaders into retirements. Alisse Waterston, president of the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia, issued a similar statement: “We have an ethical responsibility to protest [torture] wherever it takes place, especially if implemented by the United States.”