What's happening?

During the election, then-candidate Trump answered a question about torture: "I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."


This week, President-elect Trump tapped General James "Mad Dog" Mattis for Secretary of Defense. General Mattis opposes waterboarding.


Trump described their conversation on the subject. "I said, 'What do you think of waterboarding?' He said—I was surprised—he said, 'I've never found it to be useful.' He said, 'I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.'"


Trump concluded, "I'm not saying it changed my mind."

Why is it important?

Usually, when we talk about torture, we mean inflicting physical pain to gain information. Torture can also be used as a punishment, but the Supreme Court has consistently held that the Eighth Amendment (against "cruel and unusual punishments") forbids this in the United States.


Waterboarding is one type of torture, as defined by U.S. Army Field Manuals. Others include electric shock, burning, and food or sleep deprivation. The field manuals stipulate that "no person in the custody or under the control of the Department of Defense, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to torture."


Federal law also prohibits torture, but the statutes are vague. Within the physical U.S., torture is covered by state criminal statutes. Outside U.S. borders, torture is forbidden by the "Torture Act" (formally known as 18 U.S. Code Chapter 113C). Here, torture is loosely defined as "the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering."


All of this is complicated by the 2014 report on the CIA's use of torture (including waterboarding) in the wake of 9/11. The report was widely seen as damning, and intensified the national conversation about "enhanced interrogation." 

Debate it!

Should the United States use torture for national security?


There are two reasons we should never use torture as a tactic for national security: 1) it doesn't work, and 2) it's wrong.


No one would ever argue that torture is a moral good. Instead, they say, it is a cruel requisite to protect national security. That is simply incorrect.


Torture doesn't work, and therefore doesn't make America safer.


Studies consistently show that stressors necessary for torture (deprivation of air, sleep, food, etc) "create problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable." To quote the U.S. Army Field Manuals, "use of torture is not only illegal but also it is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the collector wants to hear."


Perhaps surprisingly, the point is best summarized by Napoleon: "It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile."


Torture is an unfortunate necessity. We should use it—in combination with many other tools—to protect national security.


The traditional example is the "ticking-time-bomb" case, in which a known perpetrator of an imminent attack is in custody, and agents are frantic to extract information to prevent it. In an international survey by the Red Cross, "46% of Americans said torture could be used to obtain information from an enemy combatant, while 30% disagreed and the rest said they did not know." In another study by Pew, 53% of Americans said "the use of torture could be often or sometimes justified."


Americans support the use of torture for good reason. It does not matter that torture sometimes results in confusing or false information. What matters is the chance it might produce results. To quote neuroscientist Sam Harris, "if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that rifle rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners." For torture to be worth it, the chance it saves a life need only to be greater than the chance that an attack would lose one. It often is.

Learn more...

  1. The 'Senate Torture Report' on CIA activity after 9/11
    • "The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community's actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review. Instead, CIA personnel... decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values."
  2. Research on the efficacy (or, rather, inefficacy) of torture
    • "Neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme temperatures, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of the torturer’s trade. These stressors create problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counterproductive."
  3. Neuroscientist Sam Harris' defense of torture as a tactic
    • "This appears to be a circumstance of forced choice: if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that rifle rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war."
  4. Pew Research Center results on American opinion of torture
    • "A narrow majority (53%) of Americans said the use of torture could be often or sometimes justified, while 42% said it could only rarely be justified or not be justified at all... But polling has found that there are differences along party lines with Republicans more supportive than Democrats of torture with suspected terrorists."