Explaining “Torture-Lite”

I very strongly recommend the piece in this morning’s Washington Post about the theory behind the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the CIA reportedly used on senior al Qaeda detainees.  Written by medical doctor M. Gregg Bloche, it explains that there is a theory, a “model,” with a serious foundation in behavioral science and in history that underpins so-called “torture lite.” 

In brief, “this model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair.”  Then, “once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.”  During the Korean War, this was the point at which American POWs became willing to make confessions that met the propaganda needs of their Chinese captors.  In our struggle against al Qaeda, this is the point at which, purportedly, the detainee starts to cough up useful information. 

Bloche notes that the reporting that detainees gave up information leading to Osama Bin Laden’s courier after the abuse stopped is fully consistent with the model.

Bloche’s column is not only substantively interesting, but it is also an example of how policy debate should be conducted in our country but seldom is.  Bloche treats his opponents on this issue neither as fools nor as knaves.  He makes clear that he’s still not comfortable with the concept of “torture lite” and he suspects that it leads to false confessions.  (I share these concerns, as do many experts, a category into which I do not fall.)  However, he gives a fair explanation of his opponents’ point of view.  Even more tellingly, given Bloche’s background as a scientist, he explains the ethical and legal problems that prevent the carrying out of studies which could prove or disprove the correctness of the “model” he finds so objectionable.

Well done, Dr. Bloche.

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Mark,

    On Spycast, there’s an interesting podcast with counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance. In “The Aftermath of bin Laden’s Death: Winning the War While Staying in the Right” he explains his view on enhanced interrogation techniques like water boarding. It’s a 30 MB mp3, so right-click and save before listening.

    All the best,


  2. Oh Mark, and here’s the link:


    Sorry for forgetting it 😉


  3. Hi Mark,

    I just listened to the new spycast and, oh my, did I get red cheeks! Me giving you a heads-up on a spycast, while you of course are THE Mark Stout from spycast, and it’s not the first time you replaced Peter. How could I overhear you?!?

    Whatever, now I get the chance to tell you, and Peter, what a wonderfull job you both do in the Spy Museum. I followed all interviews from the very start and they are all excellent (and times also most amusing). It’s amazing how you keep finding (by moments extraordinary) people with their great stories. Keep on going, both on the blog and the podcasts.


    • Thank you so much for the very kind words!
      For others, Dirk is referring to the podcasts from the International Spy Museum where I am the historian. http://www.spymuseum.org/spycast (I wear other hats, too, mind you….)

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