Interrogating the interrogator
Most nations, barring a few (which includes India), have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. It’s an open secret, however, that the state apparatus—the police, intelligence agencies, and the military—continues to use physical and psychological violence to extract information or a confession from suspects, a fact often depicted with chilling effect in popular cinema.
In the sinister world of interrogation, fear, humiliation and pain, it is claimed, are the most effective wringers of truth. The tools of torture used by modern-day inquisitors may not be as fanciful or elaborate as their medieval counterparts, but surely they are no less barbaric. The precious little room here for a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot for whom the art of exposé lay more in a subtle coaxing of the mind than in a crude <g data-gr-id="54">flaying</g> of the body.
But is torture really a trusted henchman of truth or is it just another instance of a self-fulfilling prophecy? The trouble is that the only people who can tell the truth are the ones endorsing it. Ideally, the best litmus test would be to do an independent experiment. But how does one even begin to design it when the experiment itself is unethical. It’s a bit like trying to find out if dying by hanging is less painful than dying by the sword.
However, new revelations and insights are lighting up this shadowy world. The US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s post 9/11 programme of interrogation, made public last December, revealed that the abuses were far more scandalous than people were given to believe. The detainees were subjected to inhuman torments such as waterboarding, confinement in the dark with long periods without sleep, and forced nudity.
More importantly, the report revealed that the interrogators’ belief that sustained torture would make the detainees crack up and confess had no scientific validity.
These findings were confirmed early this year by a team of psychologists hired by the Obama administration in 2010 to assess the effectiveness of current interrogation strategies, as well as design ethical ways of questioning detainees. Led by Christian Meissner, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, the team has produced more than 60 studies, all peer-reviewed and publicly available, that clearly demonstrate that empathy and trust are far more effective in eliciting useful information than manipulation and violence.
In particular, the team has debunked two ideas that are now part of modern interrogator’s stylebook. The first says that if a suspect displays signs of anxiety and nervousness, he is most probably lying. Apparently this association is not borne out by recent research. The second says that if a suspect is inconsistent in his narrative, he is either fabricating or dissembling. Wrong again. Contrary to intuition, research suggests that truthful memories are <g data-gr-id="43">protean</g>; the more embroidered they are, the more truthful they are likely to be. This has to do with how memory behaves over time. So, conversely, if a suspect maintains a consistent story, he is most likely fibbing.
Meissner’s& co has distilled their research into a book called Interrogation: Expanding the Frontiers of Research and Practice. But the moot question is whether the new science will alter the way governments deal with their prisoners? The outlook doesn’t seem bright, for the CIA Director John Brennan dismissed the Senate’s report as flawed, claiming coercive tactics did result in life-saving information.
Nevertheless, for a start, signatories to the UN Convention Against Torture can at least initiate a process of abolishing coercive interrogation so that prisoners are not treated like beasts. And India, which too is guilty of this immoral practice (custodial deaths rose by 42 <g data-gr-id="44">per cent</g> between 2004 and 2008), could flex its moral muscle by enacting the Anti-Torture Bill, which has been languishing for years now. DOWN TO EARTH