'Trump keeps claiming that torture works, and it simply does not'

As a Pentagon adviser, Paul Buchanan was sent to observe US Special Ops troops' "enhanced interrogation" techniques. He says Trump's push to go beyond waterboarding would be ineffective for intelligence-gathering and play into Isis' hands politically. With special feature audio.

Donald Trump has caused fresh controversy with his comment that he would authorise “far worse” than waterboarding in the fight against Isis.

The use of torture could have prevented the Brussels bombings that killed at least 34, the Republican presidential frontrunner says.

But a man who has been involved in “enhanced interrogations” by the US says torture simply does not work in most cases.

Dr Paul Buchanan is the founder of 36th Parallel Assessments. He previously worked as a senior lecturer at Auckland University, and earlier as a policy analyst for the US Secretary of Defense advising the Pentagon.

While advising Defense, Dr Buchanan says “On one occasion I was tasked to go down and observe interrogations with suspected Cuban spies who were trying to hide among refugee flows to the United States.”

The Cubans – used to a hot climate – were kept in cold air conditioning for extended periods and subjected to sleep deprivation. Later, after the Twin Towers attacks, things "went off the reservation and they began to expand the amount of coercion they used on detainees," Dr Buchanan says.

“So I’ve seen it first-hand. I believe it only works in some instances. But most of the time it does not work. And I think that is true for the types of things like waterboarding that the Bush administration introduced after 9/11," he says.

No "24" moments
In real life, there are not Jack Bauer-style, black-and-white situations that lend themselves to torture, Dr Buchanan says.

“People offer the hypothetical that there is a bomb about to go off in a mall in 15 minutes. And you have someone who knows where the detonator is – and the best way to extract that information is to torture them," he says.

"And yet it’s a hypothetical. There’s not a single instance in history of that ever occurring. That is to say, of people being tortured because there is a time-sensitive urgency in order to prevent a terrorist attack. There’s not a single case in history."

Torture is more likely to lead to people making things up, or saying whatever they think their interrogators want to hear to end the pain. And you do get a general culture of abuse that filters down to lower ranks – as with the photos that emerged of US personnel mistreating Iraqi prisoners that so badly undermined the situation in Iraq.

"Mr Trump keeps claiming that torture works, and it simply does not," Dr Buchanan says.

"And that’s been confirmed by the CIA’s own report into its enhanced interrogation programme where it comes out and basically says the interrogation programme did not work in extracting useful information to prevent terrorist attacks – and that they’re justification for using it was based on inaccurate information about its effectiveness."

If not torture, then what?
As a close observer of the intelligence community, Dr Buchanan says the real problem is poor intelligence gathering between European agencies.

Even within Belgium, there are coordination issues between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) north and west and Walloon (French-speaking) south and east, he says. The two halves of the country are political rivals – and so are their governments and intelligence agencies in the country's canton-based system.

"Quite frankly in Belgium there's been very poor information sharing among intelligence agencies, which has allowed radical Islam to breed within in it, and in particular in the suburb of Molenbeek that has become a hotbed of extremism," Dr Buchanan says.

He sees better coooperation within the confederacy of Belgium, and more broadly across Europe and Western countries as a whole is the key to combatting terror.

And the evidence so far indicates the bombing could have been caused by Belgium's failure to heed a specific warning from Turkey to take a Belgium citizen into custody.

Poster boy for Isis recruitment
At times, it seems as if Mr Trump didn’t exist, Islamic State would have to invent him.

Is there a risk his comments will drive Isis recruitment?

“It could. Everything Mr Trump says could drive Daesh recruitment. Let’s face it. This fellow is seriously bigoted toward the Islamic Slate," Dr Buchanan says.

Isis is trying to grow support by framing things as a clash of civilisations between the "Islamic State" and the West when in fact most Muslims don't support it. Mr Trump's comments aid its efforts on that front.

Dr Buchanan says Mr Trump's attitude to torture is immoral and, beyond that, impractical.

Enhanced interrogations can work if there is a classic good cop/bad cop routine in play. "You have to offer the detainee some glimmer of hope that if he gives information up, there will be something better for him or, if not him, his family, people that he loves. You've got to work on that glimmer of hope angle, not simply punishing him.

"And that's the bottom line. Coercive interrogations that include torture are punishment. They're not information-extracting devices."

Mr Trump and his supporters say "torture work"s as a justification, "but this is all about revenge," Dr Buchanan says. 

Revenge makes for a satisfying punchline at a Trump rally. But in intelligence and political terms, it's counterproductive.

Are we in danger here?
Is New Zealand in danger from an Isis terror attack?

"No it is not. And it will remain relatively immune from such an attack so long as we don't scapegoat the domestic Muslim population and we're more nuanced and judicious in our approach to the conflict with radical Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere," Dr Buchanan says. 

"What the leaders of Daesh and Al Qaeda want to do is provoke a clash of civilisations, based on the over-reaction of Western nations to the threat posed by violent Islamic terrorism.

"And we have to be very clear: although terrorism is a despicable, heinous crime, it does not shake the foundations of any established state.

"It does not pose an existential threat to any liberal democracy unless the majority overreacts and begins to universally scapegoat the communities from which extremists come."

The worst part: Mr Trump is probably smart enough to know this. But as a demagogue, he needs Isis as much as Isis needs him. Don't expect any change in the pair's toxic, co-dependent relationship. 

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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