Torture Is Illegal, Now What?

Revising The Field Manual With Input From Academia

Following last December’s sordid exposé on CIA torture, the momentum was right for the U.S. Senate to legislatively ban torture across the Intelligence Community. On June 16, 2015, legislation came quickly and decisively. Sensing the urgency to submit an anti-torture amendment before the issue became a political football for one or another 2016 presidential candidate, Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein passed their critical anti-torture amendment last week by a 78-21 landslide. By media standards, the event was actually pretty uneventful. The amendment’s passing went largely unnoticed by mainstream news outlets, although it inspired some parody and cynicism from the world of political commentary.

John Oliver lampooned the fact that a self-styled beacon of human rights such as the United States would even be debating an anti-torture amendment in the 21st Century. Conor Friedersdorf aptly pointed out that while the anti-torture amendment overwhelmingly passed, a startling number of Senators voted against it. For many who have followed the legislative process closely, however, a lack of media fanfare about the McCain-Feinstein amendment matters little. What is important now is the fine print of amendment itself – namely, the fact that the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 will now be the law of the land for the entire Intelligence Community, and it will be updated within 12 months to reflect the most up-to-date research in the field of interrogation.

That in mind, interrogators against torture can now move on to a new meaningful discussion. With the anti-torture amendment passed and the FM anointed as the sovereign training guide for the next generation of interrogators, present and former practitioners can find new purpose in addressing questions about the FM’s academic merits as well as its limitations. We can now start to discuss what academic disciplines should contribute to the FM’s first scheduled update, provided one believes that the academics should have any involvement at all.

A prevailing current within high-level interrogation circles is that psychology has much to offer. And they make a good case. Recently, members of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) research committee, including Susan Brandon, Chris Kelly, and Mark Fallon, presented a symposium sponsored by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. Their preliminary conclusions suggest that rapport-based approaches are the most useful way to obtain information – something all interrogators against torture probably know from their own experience to be true. What’s different is that the HIG is turning anecdotes from effective interrogators into empirical data that can inform the FM. Earlier this year, the HIG research committee published this brochure, which, if not incorporated into the FM directly, could at least be assigned reading for an interrogator at any phase of his or her career.

The chasm that separates academia from the industries it means to inform is indeed vast. The interrogation industry, if we can call it that, is surely no exception. Reputable members of the HIG believe psychology can enlighten the FM, and to their credit, psychologists like Chris Kelly and Christian Meissner are reaching out from the academic ivory tower to engage interrogation practitioners and create policy for immediate consumption. I don’t know of any other discipline that is doing the same.

Ultimately, interrogation is a battle between minds. The importance of psychology, therefore, is fairly self-evident. I don’t see how economists, sociologists, or political scientists could help an interrogator hone his craft inside the booth. It is a personal disappointment, furthermore, that language and culture studies can’t contribute to the FM in the same clear way as psychology. Using Arabic in the booth, and knowing what I did of Middle Eastern culture, I found that rapport – and thus information – often came rather easily. But because humanitarian disciples generally describe rather than prescribe, and because we can never fully predict which culture and in whose language we’ll be interrogating next time around, it pains me to admit that language and culture studies might have nothing useful to contribute to the FM, at least for now.

When it comes to revising the FM, the US Government has clearly placed a lot of faith in the relationship between academics and interrogation practitioners. The recently adopted McCain-Feinstein amendment requires DoD update the FM within 12 months, and then every three years thereafter, so for better or worse, these strange bedfellows are definitely in a long-term relationship. For now, it seems the interrogators are monogamously committed to psychology. That is surely nothing to disparage. I see a tremendous benefit in the association between psychology and interrogation, particularly if the HIG research committee and their team of scholars can translate that vital empirical data into a vernacular legible to the AFM’s next generation of readers, whether they’re training at Fort Huachuca or The Farm.