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Professor: Torture ineffective as intelligence-gathering tool
FDU instructor's research finds prisoners may say anything to stop the abuse except the truth

NAVID IQBAL / DAILY RECORD | April 18 2006

FLORHAM PARK -- Torture is a good way to "gratify sadism."

It helps torturers assert domination. It historically has been used to get people to make false confessions. But it does not help to harvest intelligence. These are the findings of a Fairleigh Dickinson University economics professor, who wrote an article for the academic journal Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology published earlier this month. His research and subsequent article have added his name to the global debate over the treatment of prisoners in the quest to quell and get intelligence on terrorism.

"It's easy to torture someone into a false conviction," said Roger Koppl, a tenured FDU economics and finance professor.

"If I want to practice sadism, torture is very effective. It is effective for a lot of things. It is not effective for intelligence gathering."

Dershowitz differs

Koppl's views differ sharply from those of Harvard University Professor Alan Dershowitz, who has said torture will be used if there ever is an impending "ticking-bomb" scenario.

"I wish it were true that torture did not work," Dershowitz said in a Friday phone conversation. "It would be so much easier if torture didn't work."

Dershowitz pointed to historical examples where torture was used effectively. They included its use during World War II, when Nazis found members of the French Resistance by torturing captured resistance fighters.

"It's just foolish to argue that it would not work under any circumstances," Dershowitz added. "What if it does work? So long as it is being used, I want to see accountability."

Dershowitz said torture has been employed post-Sept. 11 as an intelligence-gathering tool. He said agencies that want to use this tactic should apply for warrants from the chief justice of the Supreme Court or from the president.

Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had pressed President Bush to sign legislation that would ban "cruel" interrogation techniques, suggested that some terrorism suspects can be treated harshly if they had knowledge of an imminent attack.

"In that million-to-one situation, then the president of the United States would authorize it and take responsibility for it," McCain said on a television news show.

After months of threatening to veto any bill that contained such a ban, Bush signed on to McCain's legislation in December, banning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects.

'Terrific fiction'

Koppl argued that torture would be ineffective even in "ticking-bomb" scenarios. Part of the reason why it may seem to work is popular culture, he said. Television shows such as "24" present situations where suspects might be tortured in order to get immediate answers.

"Torture wouldn't work in these situations, but it makes for terrific fiction," Koppl said. "In reality, it doesn't work. You can't be sure you've got the right guy."

Koppl said he developed his theory while trying to determine the best methods for conducting forensic science in the field. He applied this research to torture and used a mathematical model -- a game theory -- that studies how people make the best decisions for themselves using available methods.

Koppl said his published study shows that "torture does not work under realistic conditions."

Recognizing truth

A person being tortured may provide his tormenters with information that both parties already know. But it will not help get new information because in these circumstances, the interrogators will not recognize the truth when it is spoken. And even if the truth is spoken, the torture may continue.

"Even if I tell you the truth and you know the truth, I'm under your power. How can you make a believable promise to me that once you have the truth, you can't hurt me any more?" Koppl said.

"The problem is that they cannot make a believable promise to stop torture once the victim tells the truth. Victims know this perfectly well and therefore say anything and everything except what the torturers want to know."

In real world scenarios, the answer could be a lie, or the suspect simply may say anything to stop the torture. This point also was made by McCain, a torture victim himself, in a November 2005 Newsweek article.

"The abuse of prisoners harms, not helps, our war effort. In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- whether it is true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering," McCain said in the article.

Alvin Goldman, the editor of the journal, said Koppl's study does not look at torture in terms of an ethical or moral view, which differs from other critics of the practice.

"In the past, critics of torture have pointed to moral issues, while assuming that torture works perfectly well. Koppl has shown it was wrong to just assume torture works," Goldman said.

Anti-terrorism couple

Koppl said he and his wife, Maria Minniti, decided that they "weren't going to let the terrorist inhibit our lives."

Days after the Sept. 11 massacre, Koppl said, he and his wife made an effort to visit New York more often. Also, they were in London after the recent bombings in the city's subways. Instead of staying in their hotel room after the bombings, they used the subways more often.

Sitting at a metallic desk in his office at FDU's Mansion on Wednesday, dressed in a gray three-piece pinstriped suit, Koppl was critical of the U.S. government's "opaque" detention centers -- such as in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and at overseas prisons contracted by the U.S. government to house enemy combatants -- where torture may have been occurring,

"One of the things that irritates me about Guantanamo Bay was that we have respected habeas corpus for hundreds of years and yet we have abrogated it for this population. (Standing trial) is a human right," Kopp. said.

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