Tortured Confessions – The Science of Waterboarding, Torture, and “Intense Stress”

zero-dark-thirty With the new movie “Zero Dark Thirty” raising a lot of eyebrows with its depiction of waterboarding, there has been a lot of talk regarding the veracity of such techniques. Namely, does torture yield the intended results? Did the results assist in the hunt for Osama bin Laden? There are the anecdotes that make this an interesting case to look at, but we also have the science to give a more conclusive answer to the question of whether or not waterboarding works.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the question about whether or not torture is ethically justified; I’m more qualified to talk about the psychology involved with torture, not the philosophical quandaries regarding it. All though, I would quickly note that the US prosecuted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding Allied prisoners of war, calling it torture back then.

Regardless, we have to first talk about the movie in order to get to the effectiveness of the technique. In Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT), a significant amount of airtime goes to a scene in which someone is tortured to later reveal information that helps the main characters find bin Laden.

Torture and Hard Measures

American politician John McCain – who was subjected to waterboarding himself when he was a prisoner in the Vietnam War – said this: “You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of bin Laden. That’s not the case.” And as he rightly points out, “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.” He has yet to hear a response from the creators on his inquiry about exactly how waterboarding contributed to the demise of bin Laden.

Jose Rodriguez – the former head of the CIA’s clandestine (i.e., espionage) service – thinks otherwise. He was featured in a two-part 60 Minutes story called “Hard Measures” (the name of Rodriguez’s book). Rodriquez says that as a means of ascertaining information from prisoners, he oversaw many procedures that were done to humiliate and demoralize, but clearly they were also done to psychologically damage the individuals in order to submit to questioning. At least, that was the theory.

As interviewer Lesley Stahl pointed out, Rodriguez likened some of the torture they did to more trivial things as a way to justify it. For example, he basically likens muscle fatigue (i.e., keeping your hands up for hours on end) to a workout; and sleep deprivation (i.e., staying up for three days) is essentially likened to jet lag. He also asserted that the repeated open-palm slaps to the face were not for pain but to demonstrate authority. Then there were of course other techniques like waterboarding the naked prisoner, or putting them in a small, dark confinement with an insect inside.

In the story, they talk about one prisoner, Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 after being wounded in a firefight. He was in such bad condition that they first brought in a top medical specialist to keep him alive. This was to get as much information out of him as possible. To ensure that they did not treat him too badly, however, they would later set up video surveillance. The fear was that he might die in captivity, because of his already bad physical condition, which would admittedly look bad for the CIA. There were a total of 93 tapes of footage documenting his treatment.

When Stahl asked Rodriguez about the ethicality of the practices used, he insisted that they did not do anything that wasn’t already legally approved. He also said “we have nothing to hide,” as evidenced by the fact that they had so many tapes.

However, as Stahl points out, he had the tapes destroyed. According to Rodriguez, it was to protect the identities of the CIA operatives who were on the tape. But are we now just pretending that the people couldn’t have worn masks? …that the faces couldn’t have been blurred afterwards? …or that an Al Qaeda agent has ever actually killed the target they were aiming for? Terrorist groups like that just care about quantity, not quality. They want to see lots of deaths, not specific ones. Do you think they knew the names of anyone who died on 9/11? Of course not. If they had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t have hid it. But torture is an ugly business, and it’s something the cinema is gradually getting more exposure to.

Accuracy of the Film

In the interview with Rodriguez, Stahl mentions that the CIA had even given a critical report of its own organization, claiming that they never yielded information used to catch any terrorists by waterboarding. “Bullshit!” Rodriguez protested. He claimed that the CIA investigation was sloppy and should not be taken seriously, saying that interrogation techniques have been very successful in divulging information. The 60 Minutes story came out before ZDT, but the current acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, has taken an unprecedented move to attack the film, claiming (among other things) that waterboarding was given far too much credit in the film:

I would not normally comment on a Hollywood film, but I think it important to put Zero Dark Thirty, which deals with one of the most significant achievements in our history, into some context.  The film, which premiered this week, addresses the successful hunt for Usama Bin Ladin that was the focus of incredibly dedicated men and women across our Agency, Intelligence Community, and military partners for many years.  But in doing so, the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.

What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts.  CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

It would not be practical for me to walk through all the fiction in the film, but let me highlight a few aspects that particularly underscore the extent to which the film departs from reality.

First, the hunt for Usama Bin Ladin was a decade-long effort that depended on the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers.  The filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire Agency—and the broader Intelligence Community—to just a few individuals.  This may make for more compelling entertainment, but it does not reflect the facts.  The success of the May 1st 2011 operation was a team effort—and a very large team at that.

Second, the film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin.  That impression is false.  As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad.  Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.  And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.

Third, the film takes considerable liberties in its depiction of CIA personnel and their actions, including some who died while serving our country.  We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory of them.

Commentators will have much to say about this film in the weeks ahead.  Through it all, I want you to remember that Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary.  What you should also remember is that the Bin Ladin operation was a landmark achievement by our country, by our military, by our Intelligence Community, and by our Agency.

Perhaps you noticed that this statement does not completely discredit the practice of waterboarding. Indeed, it seems more like he’s just downplaying it. For one reason or another, the CIA seems to be far less critical than the FBI about waterboarding; and there’s at least one FBI specialist who doesn’t just downplay waterboarding, he believes it makes things worse.

The Real Interrogator

The first time I ever felt strongly one way or the other about waterboarding was from yet another two-part 60 Minutes piece: “The Interrogator.” Laura Logan interviewed the fascinating former FBI agent Ali Soufan in 2011, about half a year before the Rodriguez interview aired. Soufan is an Arabic-speaking Muslim who moved from Lebanon to the US when he was 17, and he has become the FBI’s secret weapon in interrogating Muslim extremists. How does he do it? Not by torturing, but by using empathy, cultural knowledge, and cunning.

If you watch this story, you get the distinct sense that his is the only way interrogations should work. The story is fascinating and alarming. But one of the really interesting things is that they talk about the same prisoner as Rodriguez and Stahl did, Abu Zubaydah. It seems, according to this timeline, that Soufan was the first to interrogate him, and it was very different from the way the CIA did so.

The information Soufan got from Zubaydah – such as the fact that Kalid Shek Muhamed was the mastermind behind 9/11 – was new and invaluable. But all of the flow of important information stopped abruptly when, after ten days, Soufan was told to stop talking with Zubaydah. Who told him to? The Counterterrorist Team of the CIA. Despite Soufan arguing that Zubaydah was actually cooperating, the CIA believed that he was still keeping a lot of urgent information secret. The video of Part 1 of the Interrogator – which I urge you to watch – is here:

Zubaydah was the first victim of what the US began calling “enhanced interrogation techniques,” described above, from the Rodriguez interview. Soufan, however, was shocked at the usage of these techniques on Zubaydah, not only because the techniques were inhumane and against all of his own practices; but because the CIA had turned him from a cooperating source of information to every other uncooperative prisoner that they can’t seem to “crack.”

Soufan was pushed aside for a so-called “interrogation expert” of the CIA to continue where he left off (i.e., where he was forced to stop); but when Soufan asked him about it, it was clear that he knew nothing about interrogating the individual. Not only was that his first interrogation, but the “expert” knew absolutely nothing about Muslim fundamentalism. So just what was he an expert on? “Human nature.”

From part 2 of the story, Soufan describes some of the dumbest interrogation techniques I’ve ever heard of. If the phrase “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you!” sounds like something only a thirteen year-old girl would say, you would be wrong.

“Tell me what I want to know,” the interrogator would say. “What do you want to know?” the prisoner would reply. Then the interrogator would get up, say “You know what I want to know,” and leave the room. Presumably, doing this multiple times would eventually get them to talk. Suffice to say, it didn’t work. Honestly, this absolutely sounds like the technique of someone who has never interrogated anyone ever before. See the video of Part 2 here:

Soon after Soufan was pushed aside, he couldn’t take it anymore. He had to leave when he saw the “confinement box” for Zubaydah. He says he didn’t know exactly what it was for, but the interview with Rodriguez came after the one with Soufan; so we know what it was for. At least one variation of what it was used for (maybe there were more) was described above – putting the prisoner inside the small box with an insect.

Soufan was flabbergasted by all of this because the initial cooperation suggested that there was no point in any of it. In fact, Soufan wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stomach what was happening – he mentioned that while he was still there, one of the CIA operatives also left, saying that he can’t be a part of such practices. But the point of this article is to look at the effectiveness of such practices, so let’s just point out that, according to Soufan, they went from getting valuable information to getting no credible information after the CIA intervened. But if that doesn’t convince you, let’s look at the science.

The Science

In 2009, Shane O’Mara from Trinity College’s Institute of Neuroscience, in Ireland, looked at whether or not the interrogation techniques from the Bush administration were successful. He also wanted to know if there were any negative consequences produced by it. From ScienceDaily:

Psychological studies suggest that during extreme stress and anxiety, the captive will be conditioned to associate speaking with periods of safety. For the captor, when the captive speaks, the objective of gaining information will have been obtained and there will be relief from the unsavory task of administering these conditions of stress. Therefore, it is difficult or impossible to determine during the interrogation whether the captive is revealing truthful information or just talking to escape the torture.

In other words, torture may motivate victims to talk, but that doesn’t mean that what they say will be true. Anything divulged will, however temporarily, result in a break in the torture, in order to hear the person speak.

Just to be clear, O’Mara did not scientifically study the brains of individuals subjected to torture. Obviously such an experiment would never be approved by an ethical review board, so it cannot be done. Instead, he carefully read the memos that informed what was happening to people subjected to torture. He then reviewed the research literature to make educated inferences on what kinds of specific things might be happening to these individuals, because there is a great deal of information on such individual subjects.

In fact, it’s much more than a question of having the target of torture willing to tell the most accurate information. If you thought the discussion stops at “lie vs. truth,” you would be wrong. For one thing, such extreme stress causes substantial changes in the brain (Kolassa et. a., 2006). Such stress has “a deleterious effect on the frontal lobe,” which not only means that decision making is impaired, but so is one’s ability to recall information accurately. Prior studies have also shown that two areas of the brain – the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex – have hormones that have a deleterious effect on memory. These hormones are activated by high stress and sleep deprivation.

So not only do such intense stressors (i.e., torture) make it more likely that the target will be motivated to lie, but stressors also make it less likely that the target will be able to accurately recall information. So even if they wanted to tell the truth, they would be less able to, because they’re essentially getting gradually brain damaged.

Furthermore, the probability of false confessions increases sharply under such circumstances, which is a problem that law enforcers know all too well. That is to say, it’s a widespread problem, not just a few isolated events. In 1997, Kassin and Sukel looked at what factors lead to false confessions. Sure enough, on that list of factors along with youth, naiveté, and suggestibility, was stress and fatigue.

O’Mara also published an article in 2011, describing the widespread belief that is implicitly being reinforced by ZDT – that waterboarding works. He wrote:

There is a widespread and popularly-held belief that the imposition of extreme stressor states (torture) is efficacious at facilitating the release of intentionally-withheld information from (human) memory. Here, I explore why this belief is so widespread. I examine the folk model of the brain and behavior that underpins this belief, and show that this folk model is utterly inconsistent with what we currently know about the effects of extreme stressor states on the brain systems that support memory and executive function.

Scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests that subjecting individuals to such states is unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of what is intended by coercive or “enhanced” interrogation. Coercive interrogations involving imposition of extreme stressor states are unlikely to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge.

On the contrary, these techniques cause severe, repeated, and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function. The fact that the detrimental effects of these techniques on the brain are not visible to the naked eye makes them no less real.

In short, the evidence does not support the belief that torture yields accurate information. The evidence does, however, suggest that torture increases the likelihood of yielding inaccurate information. So not only does torture do no good, it also does harm. And this has nothing to do with the ethical issues, which already make the practice unjustifiable.

But how is it being justified? People in the CIA – like former operative Wayne Simmons, as well as two former directors of the CIA, George Tenet and Michael Hayden – are more likely to say things like “Waterboarding is not torture.” As Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks rightly points out, there’s a good chance that CIA operatives display a high level of cognitive dissonance which allows them to justify their practices. See the brief video below for more details:

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that, in this case, the more involved someone is with the implementation of torture, the more they feel that it is justified; or else their belief that they are rational, moral human beings would be threatened (hence the dissonance). So they either A) alleviate cognitive dissonance by believing that waterboarding is justified, or B) don’t believe that they are rational, moral people. Unless psychopaths are running the CIA, the answer is A.

The Bottom Line

To leave out the scenes of torture in the film ZDT would have been a scandal in and of itself, because that would gloss over the fact that it has been used so much since 9/11. Viewers should see the ugly side of the bin Laden hunt.

However, for a film that takes such pride in being accurate, it was even worse to suggest that a technique – so politically charged and controversial – was effective, when there is no evidence to support such an assertion. And for such a high-profile movie like ZDT, this was very irresponsible of the creators.

As most of the solutions to such issues go, the answer is not to boycott the movie or anything of the sort. The answer is, rather, just to be educated about the facts and fiction within the film.


O’Mara S (2009). Torturing the brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’. Trends in cognitive sciences, 13 (12), 497-500 PMID: 19781978

Kassin, S., & Sukel, H. (1997). Coerced confessions and the jury: An experimental test of the “harmless error” rule. Law and Human Behavior, 21 (1), 27-46 DOI: 10.1023/A:1024814009769

O’Mara, S. (2011). On the Imposition of Torture, an Extreme Stressor State, to Extract Information From Memory Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 219 (3), 159-166 DOI: 10.1027/2151-2604/a000063

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