Monday, 18 May 2009

Torture and False Confessions

Much of the media storm around torture these days focuses on the moral compromise the U.S. made under the Bush administration to break international codes of conduct and on whether good intelligence came from these brutal interrogations. I think the problem is even worse than a dearth of good intelligence. Torture produces bad, incorrect intelligence, and criminal cases in the U.S. are irrefutable evidence of this.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee heard from a former FBI agent that harsh interrogations techniques used on suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah were "ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al- Qaeda." Back in January we learned that much of the information in the 9/11 Commission Report came from confessions obtained using "enhanced interrogation techniques." Center on Constitutional Rights told NBC that he was shocked the commission hadn't asked about the techniques used to obtain crucial information.

Ratner argues "if they suspected there was torture, they should have realized that as a matter of law, evidence derived from torture is not reliable, in part because of the possibility of false confession…at the very least, they should have added caveats to all those references."

DNA testing has shown again and again in criminal cases that false confessions are real, and there's no doubt in my mind that torture leads to false information as well. As I've mentioned before, I work at the Innocence Project when I'm not blogging here at, and many of our cases have shown the power of emotional and physical abuse from law enforcement officers to force someone to admit to something they didn't do. About 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing have involved a false confession or admission. If one-quarter of information gleaned from torture was false – leading to wrongful arrests and convictions and to costly goose chases – would Dick Cheney still say it was worth it?

News reports have shown that top Bush officials repeatedly ordered agents to torture captives in an attempt to tie al-Qaeda to Iraq. If you torture someone long enough, you can get them to say anything.
Jeff Deskovic was 16 years old when he was interrogated for a murder in his small upstate New York town. Despite DNA evidence before his trial that another man committed the crime, police believed Jeff was involved and set out to prove it through a harsh interrogation. Jeff was asked again and again if he did it, and how he did it. After six hours, three polygraphs and no food, Deskovic was in the fetal position under a table ready to admit to anything. He said he committed the crime, and he spent 16 years in prison before the same DNA evidence pointed to the real perpetrator.

On Monday, a California court ruled that fake polygraphs are admissible evidence in court proceedings, virtually ensuring that there will be more Jeff Deskovics. Also this week, former Chicago Detective Jon Burge testified in a hearing in Florida about his alleged involvement in the torture of a suspect who was later wrongfully convicted. He is facing charges relating to the abuses that allegedly went on under his watch over more than a decade on Chicago's South Side - including the use of beatings, electrocutions and other forms of torture to extract confessions. We now know that many of those confessions were false.

The solution to preventing wrongful convictions - once we pass the common-sense hurdle of not allowing ridiculously unjust tactics like false polygraphs - is to videotape all custodial interrogations. Interrogation techniques used by police will be in plain sight before judges, juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the tapes will be valuable in helping investigators solve crimes and train new officers. Torture by police will become far less commonplace, and false confessions will go the same way.

The torture of suspected terrorists isn't only earning us the moral disdain of much of the world, it's also gathering piles of false information and possibly contributing to the detention and conviction of innocent people. Perhaps we need to think about recording interrogations at our secret prisons abroad as well.


persnipoles said...

The very techniques used in our war-on-terror were adapted from those used by communists (via SERE), who indeed used them to extract false confessions for propaganda. In light of the WMD debacle etc., it seems absurd to presume that their recent use by the government is perfectly free of such motives.

You rightly ask: "If one-quarter of information gleaned from torture was false [...] would Dick Cheney still say it was worth it?"

I suspect that if this were the case, he surely would. E.g., Kellog, Brown, and Root make the same money on the military's wild goose chases as on their proper leads. Also, there's the obvious possibility that false leads gained from torture are, or can be, effectively self-sustaining. That is, that one false lead can generate others through the diligence of fevered, delusional tormentors!

And its always worth remembering that, under the former system, if the 'suspect' survives the ordeal, (s)he's a witch.

Thanks very much for your insight! MK

He is innocent said...

There has been a gross miscarriage of justice in the case involving the Rev. Dr. Malachi Z. York. The prosecution admittedly stated that they had no evidence or eyewitnesses but the still were able to get a grand jury indictment. They had NO DNA evidence, 8 witnesses recanted their statements and the trial even ended in a hung jury. They still sentenced an innocent man to 135 year in Florence ADX a supermax facility for this country's worst criminal. There he has been tortured, and denied medication to treat a potentially life threatening condition. Ask Yourself Why.