Torture is Immoral and doesn’t work

 The New America Foundation and Slate sponsored a fascinating seminar this morning on “Manhunt: From Saddam to bin Laden; What Social Networks Mean for Modern
 The presenters included Colonel Jim Hickey,
Commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, U.S. Army that caught Saddam; “Matthew Alexander” (a pseudonym),the Air Force interrogator of the captive who lead to the location and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq); and Scott Helfstein, PhD, Associate, Combating Terrorism Center, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences, United States Military Academy.

All of them stressed the importance of intelligence and of knowledge of the population in
which the military is operating for the success of counterterrorism/insurgency operations. Thus historical and cultural knowledge and relevant language skills are essential for understanding the population and gaining its trust and cooperation, and thus obtaining useful intelligence. Along with being the best equipped with military hardware, America’s military is one of the best trained. Significant delegation of authority to well-trained field commanders permits flexible reactions to conditions on the ground. I have always been highly impressed by the intelligence and quality of the American military officers I have met and this seminar underscored how critical the human capacity of our military is to its success.

The skills and knowledge needed in the field cannot be trained into or found in one person—a super soldier. Thus collaboration and information sharing among a number of people with different skills is essential. More resources should be devoted to
recruiting and training interpreters, for example. The interagency turf fighting and personality clashes between the Departments of Defense and State in Iraq, for example, undermined our effectiveness there.

Most fascinating for me were the comments by Mr. “Alexander,” whose interrogation of an
al-Zarqawi associate led to Mr. al-Zarqawi’s elimination as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He expressed frustration that some political demagogues (my words not his) continue to call for “enhanced interrogation” techniques (torture) despite the generally held conclusion by the military (reflected in its field manual on interrogation) and interrogators like himself that such techniques are not effective in obtaining useful information not to mention in violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the U.S. is formally committed. He declared the call for the use of enhanced interrogation methods an insult to the skills of trained interrogators. “Imagine,” he said, “that American solders were told to use poison gases in their attack on the enemy. The suggestion that they could only succeed by violating international standards of warfare would be an insult to their skills.

By the way, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility’s investigation of John Yoo, the drafter of the Justice Department’s memo claiming to justify some forms of torture (sleep deprivation, water boarding, etc) found that he was guilty of “professional
misconduct” with regard to his advise on this matter (which could lead to his disbarment).
Earlier this week, that judgment was softened by the Justice Department’s David Margolis to “poor judgment.” I leave to legal scholars to debate the most appropriate characterization of the legal quality of Mr. Yoo’s conduct of his duties. The sad fact is that his ignorance of the substantive (as opposed to legal and moral) aspects of the subject he was advising on, so called “enhanced interrogation,” has done great harm to the United States. We are seen by much of the rest of the world and by many American’s as violating our treaty commitments and our standards of morality and we have in those limited cases
where such techniques were actually used, diminished our capacity to obtain useful information from interrogation.


Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

One thought on “Torture is Immoral and doesn’t work”

  1. Warren, Shouldn’t there be a distinction between treatment of enemy combatants covered by the Geneva Convention and foreign combatants who are not covered? Is/should this distinction found in the Military Code of Conduct? My guess is that the anti-Americanism induced by the misconduct at Abu Graib was more due to the acts of sexual-abuses/humiliation that clearly were outside of either set of standards and the result of a general suspension of discipline. Best regards, Jim

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