Torture’s Inefficiency Long Established

The following letter was published in Science on 4 December 2015.  It discusses the history of the CIA’s covert sponsorship of behavioral science research and the relationship of this research to the CIA’s torture practices.


In the 16 October issue, R. J. McNally reviews a book by Shane O’Mara, Why Torture Doesn’t Work (“Cruel and unuseful punishment,” Books et al., p. 284). I applaud the efforts of the reviewer and the author to publicize this issue, and I would like to remind readers that the inefficiency of torture has long been established, in modern times first and foremost by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) itself—the organization at the heart of the current torture dilemma.

McNally claims that “few scholars have scrutinized” the question of whether “abusive questioning reliably causes people to reveal truthful information that they would otherwise refuse to disclose,” but this is only true in a qualified sense. In the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA managed a series of front organizations, such as the Human Ecology Fund, to issue grants for empirical studies of human stress responses. The CIA enlisted numerous behavioral science researchers who did not know that their research was contributing to a torture manual (1, 2).

Although using neuroscience may be a new way to demonstrate that physical distress induces “neurocognitive deficits,” the CIA had well determined by 1963 that “psychologists and others who write about physical or psychological duress frequently object that under sufficient pressure subjects usually yield but that their ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as the will to resist” (3). The CIA’s Counterintelligence Interrogation (KUBARK) manual also observed that “in general, direct physical brutality creates only resentment, hostility, and further defiance” rather than useful information (4).

The purpose of torture is not to produce useful information; rather, “all coercive techniques are designed to induce regression” (3)—that is, specifically, to erase the individual will by exploiting the psychological and physical dependence of captives on their captors. Ending the practice of torture would seem to involve more than a new, convincing demonstration of its inutility as a means of obtaining information. In this light, then, perhaps the more important assumption to reexamine relates to the disturbing notion that torture has any purpose beyond the exacting of pain, control, and domination.

1. D. H. Price, Anthropol. Today 23, 8 (2007). Google Scholar
2. D. H. Price, Anthropol. Today 23, 17 (2007). Google Scholar
3. KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, IX.B (1963);
4. KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, IX.F, (1963).