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Torture’s effectiveness (or lack thereof)

Often in a controversy the things that are most interesting are the things that there isn’t any particular controversy about. Such is the case with the recent torture report from the Senate Committee on Intelligence. One of its twenty conclusions was:

16: The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques.

The CIA never conducted a credible, comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of its interrogation techniques, despite a recommendation by the CIA inspector general and similar requests by the national security advisor and the leadership of the Senate Committee on Intelligence.

As they then explain, they are referring to the sort of analysis that they themselves conducted: looking at each piece of important intelligence (such as the identity of Osama bin Laden’s courier), finding where that information came from, and trying to figure out whether the individual from whom it came had been subjected to harsh treatment prior to providing it — and if so, whether it seemed like the harsh treatment had been essential in getting it out of him. This is the sort of analysis they were accusing the CIA of never having done; instead, according to them, the CIA’s own internal reviews had relied on the opinions of the people who designed and ran the interrogation program, and had fobbed off outside queries by answering a different question, namely whether the interrogation program as a whole had produced worthwhile intelligence.

The CIA’s official response:

We agree with [this conclusion] in full.

They say more, but nothing more needs to be said. And they don’t try to walk back that admission by saying something along the lines of “well, we had no formal assessment, but informally we had a good handle on it”.

As for why they would concede such a thing, a lot of it is that they don’t know how their prisoners would have responded to ordinary interrogation because they didn’t try; instead they just went straight to physical abuse. (I write “physical abuse” because most of their techniques don’t rise to the level of torture. Slamming someone against a wall is roughing him up, not torture. Waterboarding probably qualifies as torture, as does keeping someone awake for three days at a stretch. And “rectal feeding”, which they did on a few occasions, is just foolishness: it isn’t painful enough to be torture, and it’s not a viable way to feed someone; the digestive tract doesn’t work in reverse.) In any case, because of this practice of going straight to physical abuse, in most (perhaps all) of the cases where the Senate report argued that the valuable information obtained from a prisoner was obtained prior to him being physically abused, they could make this argument because some other organization had interrogated the prisoner first.

The Senate report seems to be trying to give the impression that not a single piece of useful information was derived by the CIA from someone being phyically abused. They of course do not say that they are trying to prove such a thing, because it’d be pretty silly to try to prove that torturing someone absolutely eliminates the chance of getting useful information out of him. But the vast majority (perhaps all) of the examples in their thousands of pages of examples point that way.

The CIA of course has responses — most of which seem intended to take the edge off the criticisms rather than thoroughly refute them. Some of the responses are quite weak. To argue, for instance, that although the government already had a certain piece of information that was re-obtained by abusing a detainee, the prior information hadn’t been available to the relevant CIA officer, comes perilously close to arguing “we had to abuse people because our computer systems were mismanaged”. Likewise, arguing that information from a detainee was valuable even though it just confirmed information they already had from multiple sources comes perilously close to arguing “we had to abuse people because we were too stupid to know when we’d already found the truth”. The one example the CIA offered that seemed to show that physically abusing a detainee had been worthwhile was that Hambali, under duress, said that a certain group of students had been being groomed as pilots for Al Qaeda operations, then later tried to retract it — but it was judged to be correct, on what sounds like good grounds (although it’s hard to really tell).

The CIA had a rather strange theory of torture, differing greatly from the usual notion of telling a prisoner that if he doesn’t answer the question the pain will start (or will continue). Instead of trying to extort information, they were trying to break people — to reduce them to a state of “learned helplessness”, after which supposedly they would answer questions. Learned helplessness is a notion that comes out of experiments with dogs; the dogs were tortured with electrical shocks under conditions where they truly were helpless; and then later, when the door of the cage was left open and they could have escaped, they still lay there whimpering under the shock rather than jumping out. It is not clear how this would help with interrogation of humans; there would seem to be no need for detainees to “learn” helplessness when they can just be put in a situation where they really are helpless; and passively submitting to a hopeless situation is different from actively answering questions correctly.

The CIA’s theory originated with not with experienced interrogators but with two psychologists from the military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school, who there had been waterboarding trainees in order to give them a taste of what they might have to go through. One of those two, James Mitchell, in an interview with Vice News, seemed to be trying to tell the interviewer that he had misgivings about that use of waterboarding: a reaction from trainees who’d gone through it was that they never wanted to go through that again, and if captured would just tell the enemy everything; so the exercise was just “doing the enemy’s work for them”. Unfortunately the interviewer did not pick up on this and ask whether the psychologist indeed meant that they should stop waterboarding SERE trainees; but it seems like the logical conclusion. The military, while it believes in practicing for war, has long held to the rule that “you don’t need to practice bleeding”, and it seems reasonable that the same should go for being tortured. Also unfortunately unasked in the interview was what exactly the idea was, with this “learned helplessness” theory of torturing people; the Senate report is somewhat vague on this, and if posed as an abstract question about human psychology, this should have been answerable without having to divulge classified information.

In any case, the CIA sure didn’t break Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps their most important detainee. He soon picked up the pattern of the waterboarding, such as that each pour of water was to last thirty seconds; near the end of the pour, he would hold up fingers in the air to count off the remaining seconds. And then, under questioning, he continued making stuff up left and right, doing his best to distract the agency from its pursuit of his associates. In one case he got two innocent men arrested; in another, he talked about a plot to assassinate former President Jimmy Carter. (Somehow the CIA thought that that was worth writing down, rather than just laughing at.) What worked, with him, was to show him that someone had been arrested; then he would give up details on that person. Occasionally he slipped up and said something useful; but it’s not like he got anywhere near being broken. Not that one would expect the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks to break easily, of course; torture advocates might argue that waterboarding was too wimpy and that the rack or the thumbscrew would get better results — or perhaps, to pick a more modern method, that it should have been electricity to the genitals.

The way that torture has been advocated in recent years, though, has been rather strange. The scenario that was usually invoked was of the catching of a terrorist who has planted a bomb and who must be forced to divulge the location of that bomb before it explodes. In the history of terrorist plots, though, this is not something that happens much. Often someone is caught before planting a bomb; often he is caught after it explodes; but being caught in the interval between planting the bomb and it exploding? That is usually a relatively short interval of time; in suicide bombings, its length is zero. Even if a terrorist is caught during that interval, he has to be caught in such a way that the authorities know he has planted a bomb which hasn’t exploded yet; they somehow have to have insight into his operation, yet not enough insight to know his target.

But though it seems unlikely, this “ticking time bomb” scenario is not entirely empty. It could happen. The people who invoked the scenario never (that I saw) offered any documented cases of it happening — any cases one could point to and say “if we only had tortured X, we could have prevented the N deaths and M severe injuries from the bomb he laid”. They certainly did not offer long lists of cases like that, bemoaning “how many more casualties need to be added to this list before we come to our senses?” For all I know, the scenario has never happened, though I would guess that it has happened at one point or another, somewhere or other. Yet even if it hasn’t, it might in future.

It’s just that this is not the way to make laws. For every law, there are cases where it would be best to break the law. Even for murder, one can point to cases where murdering someone would have stopped the much greater harm that he did, and where someone was already inclined to murder him and was held back only by fear of the law. There are occasional times and places even for treason; this nation was formed by a treasonous rebellion, as have been many others. Yet to make murder and treason legal would mean anarchy. Likewise for torture: just because there are rare cases where torture would be worthwhile does not mean that rules should be written to permit torture. For exceptional cases, the law has escape hatches. Prosecutors are likely to decline to charge someone who by torturing has prevented many deaths and injuries; juries are likely to decline to convict; and in the last resort, a pardon is likely to be granted.

Besides this outright advocacy of torture, there is another, subtler form of advocacy, perhaps unintentional, which consists of fictional depictions which show it working better than it really does. I have not made anything like a comprehensive survey of these, and would not care to; but the movie The Battle of Algiers is perhaps the most prominent example. It doesn’t expressly advocate for torture, of course; rather, it uses the fact that the French tortured as propaganda against them. Yet it presents torture as a very effective tool for rounding up terrorist networks. The military is shown marching in, in response to some terrorist bombings, and the commanding officer is shown explaining to his subordinates what their tactics will be. To round up networks of terrorists, he says, they need information. And how to get information? “L’interrogatoire!”, he exclaims. It is implicit that this means torture; and the principal terrorist that the movie focuses on is indeed found via torturing someone.

The movie is compelling enough, and fair enough to the military, that generations of counterterrorist specialists have watched it to gain an idea of what happened in Algeria; and it is indeed well worth watching even if just to see what things looked like. But more recently, one of the principal officers in charge, Paul Aussaresses, published his memoirs. Reviews of the book largely focused on his admission that torture was used. But when read in detail, the book tells a different story. Yes, they tortured; but mostly what they did that was objectionable was to kill people without trial — thousands of them. As Aussaresses tells it, for the vast majority of the terrorists, torture wasn’t necessary to get information out of them; they spilled the beans without being tortured. It is a very different story than that told by the movie, and one which reflects worse on pretty much everyone involved: on himself and his men (for those executions without trial), on the terrorists (for not being the hardened revolutionaries they’d like to think of themselves as), and of course on those who exaggerated the role of torture and missed the mass killings.

Though the book received plenty of condemnation, its accuracy does not seem to have been a point of criticism; mostly it was criticized for being appallingly tone-deaf. Which it is; Aussaresses was not the sort of man who might quote Napoleon’s dictum that in war, “the moral is to the physical as three is to one”. Both in Algeria and when writing, he focused purely on the short-term effect of his executions without trial. The long-term effect of poisoning the public mind against France he does not consider — for that, he seems to prefer to blame leftists in the press. Which is understandable; the press was indeed a middleman for these sorts of charges, and there were plenty of leftists in the press who sympathized with the Algerian independence movement and overlooked its savage nature. (That the savagery was not simply a problem of the French being there has been shown quite amply by the post-independence history of the country, which has featured terror and repression far worse than the French ever received or dished out.) But to put the entire blame on the press, as if the underlying facts did not matter, is too easy. Leftists commonly neglect the truth, but their charges only have serious traction with the general public when there is some truth to them.

But though this heedlessness of public opinion may have contributed to losing the Algerian war, and certainly made the author a pariah in France after his book was published, it does lend plausibility to his claim that torture wasn’t all that important: whatever his reasons for making that claim might have been, political correctness could not have been among them.

Long sentences

A frequently given piece of advice for writers is to avoid long sentences. It’s one of the pieces of advice that I have always completely disregarded, as being obviously wrong: the thing to avoid is not long sentences, but complicated sentences. A sentence that is long can still be quite simple, if it doesn’t require the reader to remember previous parts of the sentence in order to parse the rest. Instead, each part of the sentence just extends the thought made in the previous one, with appropriate punctuation that shows the relationship between the two; a sentence of that sort can go on for many lines without confusing anyone. What is confusing is when a sentence does something like requiring the reader to remember which verb was used back forty words previously, before the sentence went off on a tangent. And the cure for such sentences is never as simple as just bisecting them. Often one can rearrange them to bring together the separated pieces of an idea; but if that doesn’t work, one has to drop the idea and then explicitly take it up again when one later comes back to it. Or, more brutally, one can axe the tangential remark; not everything needs to be said — or if it does need to be said, maybe it can be said somewhere else.

So if you find yourself breaking sentences apart to follow a rule that sentences should be short, you’re doing it wrong; if they can be broken apart without much trouble, they also weren’t any trouble for the reader to understand in the first place. It’s when you read a sentence, get lost, and have to backtrack to grasp its meaning, that rewriting is indicated.

Of course the difficulty in this is that just after you’ve written a confusing sentence, the thought that gave rise to it is fresh in your mind, so you remember what you were driving at even if most readers wouldn’t have a clue. The cure can be to run it by someone else, to wait a day (or maybe a week) and then revisit the text, or, in the long run, to just develop a sense of when a sentence is getting too complicated.

There is one excuse for complicated sentences, which is when you’re dealing with an underlying idea that is itself complicated, and you’re writing for a very narrow audience of people whom you expect to actually understand that idea. This is a rare circumstance; most writing — even most technical writing — has to be palatable to people who will just nod their heads at it without really understanding it. But sometimes one is writing for friends; and then the excuse that the sentence is no more complicated than the underlying idea can be a reasonable one. Even then, it still would be better to explain the idea using simpler sentences; but that takes more effort.

There is a similar state of affairs with writing computer programs, where people often insist that functions should be short. While much bad code falls afoul of that rule, the rule doesn’t really get at the essence of the problem. It’s not the functions which one reacts to by saying “okay, this is getting long, let’s move the top of it to its own function” which are the problem; it is the functions which one reacts to by saying “oh, dear lord, what is this function doing?” — or, in one’s own just-written code, “whoa, this is getting a bit hairy; how can I break it up into simpler pieces?” And the pieces do have to be simpler, for the effort to make sense; otherwise the reader of the code is left contemplating not just a horrible mess, but a horrible mess that has metastasized.

The reason people make rules about length rather than complexity is that length is easy to define, while complexity isn’t. Indeed, complexity is to some extent a matter of personal taste and experience. If you’re used to some particular code pattern, you’ll consider it less complicated than will someone who is seeing it for the first time. This also makes the rule to avoid complexity a rule that is hard to teach: from a beginner’s point of view lots of things about programming are complicated, so avoiding complexity would mean avoiding learning how to program. Instead, beginners must be given a set of easy-to-apply rules that aim at that end, such as avoiding gotos. Such rules are never perfect; but since they have been handed down by high authority, programmers often advocate them with near-religious fervor. Not that really good programmers do that; they have long since realized that these are just rules of thumb, not iron laws, and that there are times when disregarding them makes sense. But avoiding long functions isn’t even a particularly good rule of thumb; avoiding gotos, for instance, is much more to the point (though even to it there are exceptions).

Ammonium nitrate in airbags? Are you out of your minds?

Most car recalls are pretty tame. But the recent Takata airbag recall is not one of them. It’s not your ordinary situation where something might malfunction in a mild way — say, a wire shorting out which might lead to a fire, which in turn might injure someone who handled the situation wrong. With these airbags, the risk is that when set off, they might explode and send shrapnel into you.

A recent article about this stated that Takata hasn’t yet found the root cause of the failures; it went on to say that, according to Takata, “the ammonium nitrate used in the airbags was safe and stable”.

Wait, what? Ammonium nitrate, in airbags? Did I read that wrong? Did the news site get it wrong? No; checking, plenty of other sources confirm.

Well, they may not know what the root cause of their airbag malfunctions is, but I do: they used ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is hygroscopic. It’s “stable” in the sense that it won’t decompose under normal circumstances; but it absorbs water from the atmosphere and, above a certain humidity, turns itself into a little puddle. Then as it dries out, it recrystallizes into a different form. Presumably they tried to seal water out of the airbags; but seals often fail over time, or are flawed from the start; and lots of materials (like plastic films) which seem impervious to water actually let it slowly diffuse through. Once moisture has gotten in, this process (absorbing water and turning into a liquid, then drying out and recrystallizing) would repeat itself every day, due to the humidity dropping during the day then rising at night. (With a constant amount of moisture present, humidity falls when the temperature rises.)

In the airbags, they must have mixed the ammonium nitrate with something else, as pure ammonium nitrate is not a suitable propellant. And the exact nature of the mixture must have been important. The more finely divided the material, the faster the boom. The changing shape of the ammonium nitrate must have played havoc with whatever they’d done to control the speed of the boom.

I don’t know how they could ever have thought this would work. If they didn’t get problems with exploding too fast, they’d have gotten problems with exploding too slow. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter also sometimes turned out to be a problem with these airbags.) But ammonium nitrate is among the cheapest of materials, which is presumably why they tried to make it work.

Still, you just can’t field millions of devices, and expect to keep moisture out of all of them. On a laboratory scale, that might work; out in the world, subjected to all sorts of abuse and to the forces of aging, it never will.

(Most of this was originally posted as a comment to the article linked above.)

Addendum (Jan 17, 2015): On further reflection, there is one technology for sealing out water that has been widely and successfully fielded, namely enclosure in a glass capsule. Vacuum tubes generally work fine even after sitting in storage for decades; and they were produced by the billions and sent all over the globe. Their technology includes, of course, electrical connections through the glass, as would be necessary here. Having airbag propellant sealed inside glass might be a bit tricky, as the flying glass shards would have to be filtered out before they reached the bag itself; but that could be done. My guess is that the expense of such an assembly would eliminate ammonium nitrate’s cost advantage, though.

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