Homeland Security Expert: Torture Is the Least Effective Counter-Terrorism Policy

A homeland security expert speaks on the utter failure of post-9/11 torture practices, and whether counter-terrorism 'tough' talk is a presidential quality.

Juliette Kayyem:  I’ve been a woman and a mother in national security. If I got a dollar for every time someone said "more aggressive" in a meeting I would be retired. I would be a very rich woman. More aggressive? Tougher is not a policy. It’s sort of crazy talk. What does it even mean? And what we have to remember is we are not under anything close to an existential threat right now. We have a risk. It is heightened because of what is going on in the world. But don’t lose your head. I mean if you want to be president, I think your number one job requirement is you cannot lose your head every time something goes wrong. You have to sort of brace for it, accept it, learn from it and move on. And so on the learning part, any person who has been in national security and any professional interrogator will tell you information garnered from torture, waterboarding or the extreme interrogation tactics that were used in the early days after 9/11 didn’t work. It got us nothing. It got us nowhere. It got us a bunch of detainees who we can’t even put through a criminal court because we’ve tortured them, right? Because we don’t want that evidence to come out.

This is what it’s gotten us. And so, you know, it’s not only sort of un-American. It’s just – it doesn’t work. It’s like talking to a five year old. You’re like okay, two plus two does not equal five. Two plus two equals four. And anyone who has been in the interrogation world knows that successful interrogation of a hostile person is generally a good cop, bad cop scenario. It’s someone that they feel comfortable with, because they feel that they are under stress in the environment that they’re in, that they start to talk to.

This toughness talk masks any policy and that’s dangerous. But it also – and this is what worries me, is it once again perpetuates this mythology that, you know, a tough counter-terrorism policy will keep us 100 per cent safe from terrorism. And if terrorism happens it means you were too soft. That just can’t be. As I said before it’s like you tell me what country is – whether it’s the toughest country in the world – Israel for example or the least open country in the world, China or Myanmar for example – that doesn’t have violence perpetuated by people who want to have a political influence. You take the spectrum, it’s happening and that’s okay. I mean just accept it, it’s a risk. And then respond, brace, and everything else, for it.

It’s been long ruled that torture doesn’t work. John Oliver discussed it on Last Week Tonight, and put forth some very basic evidence to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of torture, and its shoddy results. "Torture is one of those things that is advertised as something that works, but doesn’t," Oliver says. In 2014, the CIA released a report that revealed to the world that in the wake of 9/11 and for years after, America used torture to try to get some answers. President Obama condemned the practices but defended the U.S.’s retroactive transparency in the report, saying, "One of the things that sets us apart from other countries is when we make mistakes, we admit them."


Under the pressure of torture, a person can and will say anything to get the pain to stop. That’s why it doesn’t work (never mind the ethics, that’s a whole other bowl of controversy). The general consensus is that waterboarding, stress positioning, rectal feeding (you read that right) and other truly horrific torture measures only serve to create false confessions, confusion, investigative dead ends, scandal, and a new rock bottom for humanity.

Juliette Kayyem, Homeland security expert and former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, is of the same opinion. Aggression, and aggressive policy isn’t the way to go. Tough talk gets the nation nowhere, and only serves to mask what the real policies are. She believes behaving logically is typically the best way to go, and notes that a president (ahem, or a specific presidential candidate) can’t lose his or her head and fire off about ‘toughness’ every time there is an act of terrorism. Toughness isn’t what keeps the country safe.

Kayyem insists that not using torture doesn’t mean that as a country, America would be weak – and she condemns the mythology of terror as a result of ‘weakness’ as dangerous. Without torture, America is just as strong, and more likely to have accurate answers from detainees. After all these years, who knew that good cop/bad cop still works the best? Kayyem explains it’s more beneficial and yields greater intelligence to sit with the detainees in a calm discussion, rather than try to force answers.

Juliette Kayyem’s most recent book is Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.

A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.

Sponsored
  • How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
  • To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.