In Intelligence, Less Is Often More

GENERIC interrogation prisoner shackles dog shepherd torture abuse iraq CBS/AP

This Column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
Say what you will about Joseph Stalin, but at least the man ran a top-notch crime control apparatus. Freed of the petty constraints of due process and human rights, the crack investigative team at the KGB ran down leads swiftly and diligently. When they found someone with information, they tortured him, quickly generating accurate information and keeping the authorities ahead of the curve. Stalin's Soviet Union had its problems, to be sure. Bad weather, economic deprivation, a certain absence of political freedom, etc. But the criminal justice system — that was solid.

Well, no.

It wasn't like that at all. Pervasive surveillance, an absence of due process, and widespread use of torture, shockingly enough, didn't actually create an effective law enforcement system. Instead, you got the madness of the Great Purge. Thousands upon thousands of supposed traitors and saboteurs were arrested and sent away to the Gulag for, essentially, no reason at all. Rather than the Soviet security forces serving as a hyper-effective mechanism for rooting out a conspiracy, the utter absence of restraint on those forces led to mass repression of a conspiracy that didn't even exist.

From the regime's perspective, this arrangement wasn't pointless by any means. The prisoners were made to do forced labor and got a lot of work done. The population was cowed and terrorized. And while the widespread deployment of torture didn't generate anything in the way of accurate information, it did generate confessions by the bushel. Confessions were, of course, precisely what Stalin was after, as they validated the existence of the alleged conspiracy that justified the purge. The system worked, after a fashion, but it certainly didn't work as a system for solving crimes or cracking conspiracies. It worked as a component of the dictator's imposition of totalitarian rule on the country.

Which is all just to say that there are two closely related reasons we find the idea of torture depraved. On the one hand, the deliberate infliction of cruelty is simply a depraved act. On the other hand, though, it's simply the sort of thing that only depraved people do — as an actual investigative technique, it sucks. It's a way of encouraging people to tell interrogators whatever it is the interrogators already happen to believe.

This is why you don't see torture associated with low-crime jurisdictions. You see it associated with brutal dictatorships seeking to cow the population into submission. You see it associated with purges, witch hunts, and inquisitions. Wherever phony confessions are required as an instrument of policy, you'll find your torture chambers.

Under the Bush administration, we've seen much the same thing. Contrary to what the president claimed last week, torturing Abu Zubaydah hasn't made the country safer from terrorism. Rather, it made the president vaguely safer from public embarrassment. When Zubaydah was captured, Bush proudly claimed it as a crucial win in the war on terrorism. It turned out that he just wasn't very important — he was kind of crazy, handled minor logistical matters, and didn't know anything about terrorist plots. But that's not what his interrogators thought, so they tortured him until he told them about plots. The leads were duly tracked down and resulted in…nothing. The best Bush could claim on behalf of this gambit was that Zubaydah "identified one of [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed]'s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks — a terrorist named Ramzi bin al-Shibh." Not where he was, mind you, just who he was.

Alas, the government already knew all about him. His name had been in major newspapers, and he was mentioned in congressional testimony by FBI officials. Nothing was achieved, but much time was wasted running down totally useless pseudo-information.

And so it goes. Bush's embrace of torture is not, fortunately, of a piece with an effort to transform the United States into a totalitarian dictatorship. It is, however, part of a seamless web of misunderstanding in which he's mired America's law enforcement and intelligence apparatus. The basic problem is a persistent belief that better intelligence work requires more information. It sounds reasonable at first glance, but it's dead wrong. The world is positively awash in information. The problem is that there's so much information to go around that much of the information is wrong, and there's only so much time in the day to look at everything.

On 9/11, for example, various elements of the FBI and the intelligence community already had all the information that would have been necessary to foil the plot. The trouble was that no one person had all that information, because everyone was busy looking at other things. New processes — pervasive surveillance, relaxed standards of evidence, statements acquired through torture — that increase the quantity of intelligence by reducing its quality make things harder, not easier.

More information, conversely, simply tends to reconfirm what the powers that be already think they know. Key actors in the Bush administration were convinced that Saddam Hussein had advanced weapons of mass destruction programs. And by squeezing every possible bit of information out of every al Qaeda captive and every Iraqi defector on hand, they were able to find their "proof." If you relax your standards enough and look hard enough, in other words, you'll be able to find information to justify just about any conclusion you like. The trouble is that the conclusions you like aren't going to be the conclusions that are accurate. The upshot was a gigantic mistake for which the country has paid — and continues to pay — a steep price. In the world of intelligence, in other words, less is usually more.


Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved
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