Interrogators have centuries of experience extracting information from the unwilling. Yet it has not settled a debate as old as interrogation itself: Does torture work?

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Interrogators have centuries of experience extracting information from the unwilling. Medieval inquisitors hanged heretics from ceilings. Salem magistrates used fire to elicit witchcraft confessions. And CIA officers waterboarded terrorism suspects in clandestine prisons.

Yet it has not settled a debate as old as interrogation itself: Does torture work?

Secret Justice Department memos, released last week revealing the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods, do little to resolve the question. The memos credit waterboarding, face slapping, sleep deprivation and other techniques for producing the country’s best intelligence following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They also note that nonviolent tactics more often were successful than violence.

President Obama, who ordered the memos released, said Tuesday they showed the United States “losing our moral bearings.” He did not, however, say whether he believed the tactics worked.

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In 2006, a group of scientists and retired intelligence officers set out to settle the matter. They sought to find the most effective interrogation tactics and advise the U.S. government on their use. Their conclusions, laid out in a 372-page report for the director of national intelligence, argued against harsh interrogation.

“The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information,” former military interrogation instructor and retired Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman wrote in the Intelligence Science Board report. “In essence, there seems to be an unsubstantiated assumption that ‘compliance’ carries the same connotation as ‘meaningful cooperation.’ “

In short: Slam someone up against the wall, keep him awake for days, lock him naked in a cell and slap his face enough, and he will probably say something. That doesn’t necessarily make it true.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has long maintained that the CIA’s harshest interrogation tactics, which the U.S. now considers torture, prevented terrorist attacks and saved lives on President Bush’s watch after Sept. 11. He called on the Obama administration to release documents showing that success.

The documents, which are referenced in the Justice Department memos, say the interrogation program “has been a key reason why al-Qaida has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.”

Waterboarding worked

Intelligence from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, two detainees who were waterboarded, led to the discovery of a terrorist cell, the capture of other suspected terrorists and an understanding of the terrorist network, the documents say.

Darius Rejali, a Reed College political scientist who studies torture, is dubious of such claims. The British claimed that tough interrogation of Irish Republican Army suspects thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks, Rejali said, but evidence later proved the intelligence was often useless.

“When the data comes it’s usually just incredibly embarrassing,” Rejali said.

Elsewhere in the Justice Department documents, there are suggestions that the toughest tactics weren’t always the most successful. Of the 94 terrorist suspects in the CIA program, only 28 were subjected to “enhanced” methods, the documents said. That means two out of three detainees gave up valuable intelligence in simple interviews.

When the CIA decided to use waterboarding — a tactic that simulates drowning — officials ended up using it far more than intended. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 82 times in August 2002, the documents said. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.

“You keep thinking, ‘Maybe one more time, and one more time,’ ” Rejali said, explaining how interrogators ramp up their methods even as their effectiveness wanes.

If such tactics are unreliable, why would CIA officers, Justice Department lawyers and the White House all sign off on seven days of sleep deprivation, locking detainees in wooden boxes, forced nudity and simulated drowning?

Bureaucratic answer

The answer, Rejali said, is the same one that explains so much in Washington: bureaucracy.

“The correct answer for a bureaucrat is always to torture, even if you know it doesn’t work,” Rejali said. “Nobody wants to be the guy who could have done something and then didn’t do it.”

The stress CIA officers were facing is clear from the Justice Department memos. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed taunted his interrogators when asked about planned attacks: “Soon, you will know.”

Tensions were high, the country was in the midst of one war and on the brink of another. “And we suspended the whole idea of quality control,” said Jack Cloonan, a former member of the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit.

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