A brief guide for the perplexed.
Torture works. The Senate's report on the CIA's use of torture concludes that it is 'ineffective'. This repeats earlier Congressional criticism of cultural products such as 24, Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and so on, often made with the collusion of intelligence agencies. Hence, the CIA's use of forced anal ingestion of water, stress positions, beatings, hypothermia and other forms of physical and mental torture are understood as a kind of grotesque political error or self-indulgence.
This will not do as a critique. Torture works. And it works in the following ways:
i) It procures an evidentiary basis for convictions and supports dominant narratives about a global conspiracy against civilization. A case in point would be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his remarkable, extravagant confession, extracted under torture.
ii) It supplies a flow of information justifying bureaucratic practices. Of course most of the information is bullshit, and none of it leads to the disruption of major 'plots'. The Republicans are hugely inconvenienced by the discovery of this fact. However, bullshit information can be 'actionable intelligence' if it allows the state to perpetuate policies the ruling class supports. Fielding and monopolising information to produce the discourses of statecraft is exactly what states do. In that sense, bullshit may be exactly what the torturers were looking for. If Abu Zubaydah did not provide information about real plots, he nonetheless provided information that state agencies could use.
iii) It intimidates and punishes enemies of the state
. This does not necessarily break resistance movements. The IRA, for example, understood torture as part of their national struggle, and prepared for it and symbolised it as such. However, it's an open question how much this demoralises potential supporters, as opposed to inciting further resistance. Obama's critique of such methods upon taking the White House was that it merely provided further incitement. But given that he has allowed torture to continue, that is necessarily a provisional judgment about a certain kind of very public, spectacular form of torture.
iv) It identifies social inferiors
. This is a sociological commonplace. In ancient Rome, the torture of slaves was justified on the basis that slaves were not rational creatures like citizens. Truth could only be induced from them not through discourse but by tormenting their bodies. In modern states, 'terrorists' and communists and various racial others are those from whom no truthful statement can be elicited except through torture. As such, a de facto caste system is produced in juridical practice wherein a certain special case of people can be rendered, interned, tortured and only released at the pleasure of captors. Their status as inferiors is inscribed on their bodies, as well as in the technical discourses of the state.
These goals are, of course, only rational within a certain strategic framework, wherein (often racialised) military power is preeminent: war, colonialism, or dictatorship. There is therefore, in principle, a basis for a liberal capitalist opposition to such measures, and to the illiberal, Schmittian discourses justifying them. But in an empire, effective opposition in the legislature or executive is likely only ever to be partial and contingent.
It is also important to say that the above diagram on the rationality of torture is not the whole story. These 'secret' functions of torture will form part of the archive of historical experiences that inform any state action. Yet, to speak of the functions of torture is not to subscribe to a functionalist account of torture. States are almost always dysfunctional. A state is not a well-oiled machine, but an ensemble of relations traversed by struggle and subject to competing political pressures.
It would be prudent to assume that the functions of torture would have been understood in some ideological form by most leading state personnel who authorised, legalised and implemented the CIA's 'detention and interrogation' programme. But bureaucrats also operate under a variety of conflicting political pressures, within a particular occupational culture, within institutional constraints, and in a strategic context where the goals are not all straightforward or mutually compatible. Yes, they wanted to disrupt actual 'plots', catch actual 'terrorists', and so on. But they also wanted other things, such as wars of conquest, expanded state capacities, larger budgets. Yes, they have a certain bureaucratic rationality, but they are also subject to official, racist, securitarian ideologies which are often laughably inept. Dysfunction is built in to what they do. And of course, there was dissent even within the CIA concerning the use of torture, so these things are always subject to struggle and contestation.
The point of focusing on the rational 'moment' of torture is to point out that it is not pathological from the point of view of imperialist states. The critique that torture is 'ineffective' implies that the military leaderships, intelligence agencies, local regimes and so on are basically incompetent people who are incapable of learning from centuries of ruling class praxis. Allow for dysfunction and incompetence: we know that the CIA embodies an immense wealth of monopolised knowledge about how torture works. We know that it proactively learns and adapts. Its deployment of methods such as sexual humiliation has been learned in interrogation centres in Israel and Egypt. Its evolution of methods such as the stress position that leave no clear physical mark, and can thus be classified as 'enhanced interrogation' rather than torture, clearly learns from certain police techniques. The employment of psychologists who helped to devise new torture techniques for $81 million is indicative of the professional virtuosity of those devising torture programmes.
Allowing for strategic mishaps, blunders, conflicting goals, official antagonism, and so on, the general picture one gets is that the techniques are developed through experience and expertise and the results are such that, even if counterproductive to some ends, nonetheless are both beneficial to other goals, and exactly the sorts of results that the state tends to select in favour of.
From this perspective, it is the critique, not torture, that is ineffectual.