The War on Torture: Should We Play by the Rules? An In-depth Analysis of the Effectiveness of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Used by the United States Intelligence Community Post-9/11

By: Nathan Swartz


After the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the threat of communism retreated as the Cold War dissolved and Boris Yeltsin assumed presidential power in the newly formed Russian Republic. In the years after World War II, the only real concern the United States (U.S.) faced was the spread of communism and the means by which to contain it. However, as the Cold War came to a close, a new threat emerged. What’s come to be known as the current-day war on terror began in the early 1990s and has since occupied the U.S. military and intelligence community (IC).

The war on terror came to a pivotal head on September 11, 2001, when two planes struck the Twin Towers in New York City, with a third striking the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth, crash landing in rural Pennsylvania, suspected of heading to either the White House or U.S. Capitol building. The George W. Bush presidential administration was blindsided; it appeared as if war was inevitable. In the ensuing months, military troops were deployed and the IC worked around the clock to seek retribution for an attack conducted by the terror group al-Qaeda that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians. 

Key components of the IC relied upon were the capture, detention, and interrogation of suspected terrorists. These interrogations often included torture methods that the IC has dubbed “enhanced interrogation techniques” (Schmidt, 2018, p. 1014). These enhanced interrogation techniques included sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, being forced to hold certain stress positions for long periods of time, and waterboarding, among others (The American Journal of International Law, 2008). These now-unclassified techniques utilized predominantly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have shown issues in the legality, morality, and effectiveness of the IC and have sparked debate on whether or not these methods should be used in a war setting. 

Currently, the U.S. does not practice torture on detainees; nonetheless, people arguing for or against have expressed beliefs as to why or why not enhanced interrogation techniques should be used on detainees. Regardless of stance on the issue, there is one fact that has remained absolute throughout the post-9/11 era: the uncovering of CIA practices being made available to the public has called into question the effectiveness of these techniques to yield vital national security information as well as the legality of these techniques. In addition, this information has transformed the operational procedures used by the entire IC when conducting interrogations (Hamm, 2007). The purpose of this research is to discuss the techniques utilized throughout the detention program in the post-9/11 era, test hypotheses regarding the techniques’ effectiveness, and ultimately determine if the detention program was a success or failure.

Literature Review

Firstly, prior to the discussion of arguments for or against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, these techniques must be defined. In the years after 9/11, the CIA detention program led to the capture of roughly 119 persons of interest, of which 39 were subjected to these techniques. The agency utilized various methods of interrogation in hopes of obtaining valuable intelligence from detainees in order to fight the war on terror. These techniques all dealt physical harm to the detainees and in most cases, when used in combination, led to significant mental strain that obscured normal thought processes. Techniques as basic as slapping, walling (throwing a detainee against a wall), sleep deprivation, and waterboarding (simulated drowning by pouring water over a cloth covering the face) were most common. In addition, techniques such as rectal rehydration, force-feeding, submerging in ice baths for long periods, nudity, and threatening to harm detainee family members were utilized in latter periods of interrogations; the techniques were often repeated for days and weeks at a time (Feinstein, 2014).

When looking at arguments for or against the usage of enhanced interrogation techniques, specifically arguments in favor, the Bush administration was the prime supporter. On the evening of September 11, President Bush explained that the U.S. was going to bring those involved to justice. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass,” said Bush to his advisors (Nashel, 2008, p. 225). This ultimately led to the CIA revitalizing torture as a means to obtain intelligence vital to U.S. national security. It was essentially the CIA’s method of choice at Black Sites—secret prisons around the globe that held detainees.

Bush defended the use of these techniques in 2008 when he vetoed the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2008 which required interrogations by the CIA to comply with the U.S. Army Field Manual; the House of Representatives was unable to override his veto. This manual contains a section on interrogations of legal, armed combatants and prohibits the use of waterboarding, electrocution, sensory deprivation, hypothermia, and denial of food, water, or medicine, and requires the application of the Geneva Conventions to detainees. Bush stated that this restriction would eliminate the CIA’s ability to apprehend and detain suspected terrorists, and to question these detainees in order to gain valuable intelligence—one of the vital tools necessary in the war on terror (The American Journal of International Law, 2008). The former President’s justification for the veto also included an explanation claiming that the sole reason the CIA interrogation program was so effective was because of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. He stated that these techniques did contribute to the collecting of information deemed critical to the security of the U.S., helped generate a greater understanding of the structure of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, and ultimately prevented another 9/11-magnitude attack from occurring. It was noted that the Army Field Manual’s interrogation procedures are for the treatment of lawful combatants—terrorists are not considered lawful combatants—and were not designed for the IC. In addition, this attempted limiting of CIA tactics to the manual would’ve been extremely dangerous being that the manual is a public document; any person wishing to understand this manual can quickly search for the document online and learn the tactics of the U.S. military. Bush explained that al-Qaeda trained to resist the interrogation procedures within the manual and that more severe techniques needed to be used; all in all it came down to saving American lives (The American Journal of International Law 2008). 

On the contrary, the opposition to torture is filled with military, public, and private sector embarrassment, evidence showing that these techniques rarely work, and those who conducted these interrogations expressing concern with the usage of enhanced interrogation techniques. Focusing on military embarrassment, the actions conducted by the U.S. at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000s point fingers at the Bush administration, describing the immorality and illegality of treatment imposed upon the detainees; military personnel utilized CIA detention methods which led to humiliation through the emergence of various photographs taken in the prison during interrogations. This led the New York Times to publish an article stating that these images were more a symbol of America than the Statue of Liberty herself. Photographs showed a detainee with underwear over his head, handcuffed with hands behind his back, elevated, and attached to metal bars on the window of his cell; another photograph showed a detainee standing on a wooden box, draped in cloth, bag over his head, with his fingers attached to metal wiring (Hamm, 2007). 

The Bush administration attempted to deny responsibility, explaining that the military members involved in these interrogation techniques were just “bad apples”; he condemned the use of torture and explained to the press in 2004 “we do not condone torture; I have never ordered torture, I will never order torture,” (Hamm, 2007, p. 265). These statements in regard to Abu Ghraib were found to be false. As explained in the previous information above, Bush defended the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and cited why they were vital to U.S. national security efforts. In addition, a military member who was involved in the treatment of detainees at the prison stated that the U.S. government “made me do things that were morally and ethically wrong,” (Hamm, 2007, p. 263). 

It wasn’t until the mid-2010s that a Senate Select Committee report delved into the CIA detention program with its mission of determining the program’s effectiveness in fighting the war on terror. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by chairman Diane Feinstein, released a near-700 page report in December of 2014, analyzing the CIA’s detention and interrogation program post-9/11 and providing insight into the lack of accountability by the CIA and lack of ability of enhanced interrogation techniques to gain actionable intelligence. Although the Senate focused solely on the CIA, the conclusions also applied to the situation at Abu Ghraib prison. The Senate Select Committee listed 20 conclusions at the beginning of the report which pointed to the CIA’s ineffectiveness of torture techniques. Within these 20 conclusion statements, the Committee found that 7 out of 39 detainees subject to torture yielded no information while in CIA custody. More often than not, detainees gave accurate intelligence before being tortured or without being subject to the techniques. In contrast, detainees who were tortured often gave false information to simply have their maltreatment end. Furthermore, the CIA explained that had it not been for the detention program, various terror attacks would not have been thwarted. The Select Committee analyzed 20 counterterrorism successes the CIA claimed have prevented due to information gathered from detainees during times of interrogation and found that the successes did not rely on, or were connected to, any intelligence provided by the detainees (Feinstein, 2014).

Likewise, a private sector entity, the American Psychological Association (APA), deeply regretted its involvement in helping the CIA to conduct torture on detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay (Euro Psychologist, 2019). The CIA solicited the expertise of the APA in 2005, specifically the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), to receive training and insight into what works when dealing with the psychology of the human mind and how to bring an individual to his or her breaking point. The APA continuously denied any allegations that it was involved but once it was discovered that in fact the organization was involved, the APA immediately issued a formal apology and admitted to its collusion with the IC. It promised to recommend and implement policy prohibiting the involvement of psychologists in interrogations. Even so, copious numbers of employees resigned over disgust of what was described as a total lack of ethical awareness, giving scientific legitimacy to torture. Members of the CIA who were present for interrogations also expressed their concern for the severity of the techniques, many saying they did not agree with the techniques but rather were simply following orders (Bohannon, 2015).

Nonetheless, even with the revelations and overwhelming discontent with the U.S. use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the post-9/11 era, it is important to understand American views on torture. In 2004, a Pew Poll found that 42% of Americans agreed that torture could be justified for suspected terrorists. Five years later, the same poll saw the number spike to 54%. Setting aside the maltreatment of human beings being described as immoral and unethical, it was argued that terrorist groups act in unethical and immoral ways and should be met with similar force, this can explain the mindset that torture can be justified (Euro Psychologist, 2019).

In addition, a more current search of statistics dealing with torture and public approval was important to further understand Americans’ stance on the issue. Pew Research Center’s most recent poll in 2016 of American ideologies towards torture took place before the 2016 presidential election. The poll surveyed 4,265 adults, randomly, across the United States, both men and women of White, Black, and Hispanic ethnicities, ranging in age from 18 to 65 and above, with various levels of education. The poll specifically asked those surveyed to think about U.S. anti-terrorism efforts to determine if their views aligned more on the side of no-circumstances or some-cirucmstances in which torture could be used. It should be noted that in this survey Hispanics were considered anyone who did not categorize themselves as black or white. Those who did not have an opinion on the matter were not factored into the percentages. The percentages for or against torture for each category (gender, age, race, etc.) were recorded as well as overall averages encompassing all categories, and the overall stance was 48% for and 49% against. Pew Research Center utilized its nationally representative American Trends Panel which uncovers demographic and political differences on certain topics that are in question (Tyson, 2017). 

Theory and Hypothesis 

Through the initial literature review, it has become apparent that there are most definitely two sides regarding the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Although there are staunch supporters of torture, it is important to note that those involved ultimately apologized for using such techniques. It appears through preliminary research that the overwhelming opinion of the use of torture is in fact immoral and unethical, but the goal of this research is to determine if the enhanced interrogation techniques actually worked. 

Based on the Senate report stating the lack of effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques tied to the various degrees of harm to which the techniques incur, it is hypothesized that increased levels of bodily harm through interrogation would not yield information vital to U.S. national security. More often than not, when a person is put through extensive amounts of torture, that person will say anything in order to have the interrogation cease. This could lead to falsified information or information that lacks any correlation to previous intelligence gathered just to have the torture stop.

Stemming from the previous hypothesis, a second emerges. Due to evidence uncovered by the U.S. Senate on the kinds of techniques used, with most being used in combination, the ability of the CIA to use extremely severe techniques would lead to a lack of intelligence gathered and thus could not contribute to the thwarting of terror attacks imposed on the U.S. As stated prior, the more severe the technique, the more often the person being tortured will simply say anything in order to have the maltreatment stop. This can directly hinder U.S. national security efforts being that the information provided by detainees was not always true. 

Data and Methods

In order to test these hypotheses data needed to be collected, synthesized, and analyzed. Firstly, through the research conducted, it became clear that the Senate Select Committee’s report on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA needed to be the focal point of data gathering. This report is the sole document where actual data could be gathered being that such highly sensitive information was only available through the declassified report. Although much of the report remains heavily redacted, it is the most objective, unbiased source regarding the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques.

From the Senate report, a total of 119 individuals were detained by the CIA, of which 39 were subject to enhanced interrogation techniques. These 39 detainees were placed into an Excel spreadsheet in one column. Further identification of data variables was compiled into columns dedicated to the detainee number, the severity level of techniques utilized on that detainee, if the detainee met the detention standards of the CIA, if the intelligence provided was vital to United States national security because of these techniques, and if terror attacks were thwarted because of this intelligence. Each column was assigned a numbered value which was then converted into an SPSS data file. SPSS is a statistical software program commonly used in the fields of political and social sciences. 

When discussing the independent and dependent variables, it became somewhat tricky to determine what was independent and dependent. In the case of the data gathered in the Excel spreadsheet, each variable seemed to affect another in an independent-dependent relationship. Both the “terror attack thwarted” column and the “intelligence provided vital to U.S. national security” column were dependent upon the independent variables of the level of severity of techniques used and if the detainee met the detention standards of the CIA. However, the “intelligence provided vital to the U.S. national security” column also acted as an independent variable that affected the ability of the U.S. to thwart terror attacks. Lastly, the severity of techniques utilized was dependent upon if the detainee met the detention standards of the CIA.

Initially, each column was assigned numbered values that correlated into a system of Yes or No. Each detainee was numbered 1-39 and was assessed from 1-5 based on the levels of enhanced interrogation techniques used, with 1 being the least severe techniques used and 5 being the most severe. Next, the CIA detention standards were split between Yes or No, with 1 meaning Yes and 2 meaning No. The “providing information” column was also created in this way, but with 1 meaning Yes, 2 meaning No, 3 meaning information was provided before/without the use of techniques, and 4 meaning false information was provided. Lastly, terror attacks thwarted was defined as 1 for Yes and 2 for No.

Once the data for all 39 detainees was gathered and assigned values, it became apparent that crosstabulation analysis was needed in order to determine statistical significance to either reject or accept the hypotheses stated in the previous section. This study has a small n value, as each test only has 39 subjects. This makes it very challenging to develop statistically significant conclusions at the .05 significance level, but this research will consider the significance value as well as observations in the tables to determine suggestions of significance. This should be considered when reading the conclusions of this research. A total of five crosstabulation tests were conducted through SPSS, and these included whether or not the detainee provided information vital to U.S. national security compared to the extent of enhanced interrogation techniques used, if a terrorist attack was thwarted due in part to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques used, if a terrorist attack was thwarted by a detainee cooperating and providing useful information vital to U.S. national security, if the extent of enhanced interrogation techniques was related to the detainee meeting the detention standards of the CIA, and whether or not the detainee cooperated by providing useful information vital to U.S. national security in comparison to the detainee meeting the detention standards of the CIA.

Crosstabulation uses chi-squared tests to determine if there is a relationship between the independent and dependent variables, and if the relationship is significant. The test also provides gamma values, which indicate the strength of relationships. These values were the focal point throughout the crosstabulation analysis. 

Once the first test between the detainee providing information vital to U.S. national security and the level of enhanced interrogation utilized was conducted, the crosstabulation table included sections with values of 0 due to detainees not being assigned all numbers within the level of severity. The detainees originally did not receive severity-of-technique ratings of 4 or 2, but rather 1, 3, and 5 with 1 being the least extreme usage of techniques, 3 being a combination, and 5 being the most severe. In order to eliminate the 0 values and extra rows in the crosstabulation table, the data in SPSS needed to be amended. Level of severity of techniques was compressed into 1, 2, or 3 with 1 being the least extreme usage of techniques, 2 being a combination of techniques, and 3 being the most severe techniques. The column dealing with the providing of information vital to U.S. national security was also revised, with 1 staying Yes, 2 combining No and False Information, and 3 correlating with information provided before the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Analysis and Findings 

After the crosstabulation tests were completed, the results needed to be synthesized with the hypotheses generated from the initial research. After a review of the five tests, it was determined that the third test was not adequate in terms of providing statistics that could contribute to the acceptance or rejection of the hypotheses. This test dealt with whether terror attacks were thwarted and whether or not the detainee cooperated by providing useful information. Put simply, if a detainee didn’t cooperate, it would be fair to conclude that a terror attack was not thwarted and this showed within the crosstabulation table. The remaining four tests yielded beneficial results that related to the hypotheses. For reference, the two hypotheses are: 

  1. Increased levels of bodily harm through enhanced interrogation techniques did not yield information vital to U.S. national security.
  2. Increased levels of bodily harm through enhanced interrogation techniques did not contribute to the thwarting of terrorist attacks.

Focusing on the first test (see Table 1), the crosstabulation determined that cooperation by a detainee relied upon the least-extreme interrogation methods used (33.3% compared to 22.2% who underwent extensive interrogation methods). The test showed a Chi-squared value of 0.401 with a significance of 0.526. While this significance value is not below the standard of .05, there is an indication of correlation between the variables when studying the table. Also, the test revealed a Gamma value of 0.273, which depicts a moderately strong relationship. This test suggests a relationship between interrogation intensity and cooperation, and it would likely be more statistically significant if there were more data points available to analyze. However, more severe methods of interrogation do not always lead to cooperation, and in this case, they did not lead to the provision of information vital to U.S. national security. 

Table 1: If Detainee Provided Useful Information Based on Extent of Interrogation Used

The second test dealt with the ability of terror attacks to be thwarted based on the extent of interrogation used (See Table 2). When looking at the table, the conclusion is met that regardless of the severity of interrogation used, both least-extreme and most-extreme did not thwart terror attacks (70% and 77.8%); Chi-squared and significance values were 0.207 and 0.649 respectively. Again, this significance is far above the .05 threshold, so it is not statistically significant, but the moderately strong Gamma value of 0.200 indicates the possibility of a relationship. Through this test, the second hypothesis is accepted. We can observe that increased levels of bodily harm through the use of enhanced interrogation techniques do not lead to the thwarting of terror attacks.

 Table 2: Terror Attacks Thwarted Due to Extent of Interrogation Used

To continue studying the hypotheses, the fourth test (See Table 3), showed that the detainees who did not meet the detention standards received the least-extreme levels of interrogation (100% of detainees who did not meet detention standards received the least-extreme levels of interrogation). The Chi-square is 23.400 with a significance of 0.000 and Gamma of -1.000. This is both statistically significant and strong. The fact that detainees not meeting the detention standards of the CIA received the least-extreme interrogation methods can relate to the two tests stated above. Being that the detention standards were not met, these detainees were simply persons of interest or suspected of colluding with known terrorists. More often than not, these detainees did not possess information vital to U.S. national security. This can be seen in the small percentage of those who cooperated in the first test, received the least-extreme treatments, and did not contribute to the thwarting of terror attacks. 

Table 3: Extent of Enhanced Interrogation Used and If the Detainee Met the Detention Standards of the CIA

Lastly, the fifth test (See Table 4), shows that 38.5% of detainees who did not meet the detention standards of the CIA cooperated as compared to only 15.4 % who did meet the detention standards. This directly relates to the first test showing that the detainees who did not meet detention standards received the least-extreme levels of interrogation and also cooperated the most. To contrast, those who did meet the detention standards but did not cooperate (84.6%) show the lack of information provided and the lack of terror attacks thwarted. The Chi-square was 2.167 with a significance of 0.141. This value is above the .05 statistical significance threshold, but it is close, and there are noticeable trends in the table provided. The Gamma value of -.549 reflects a very strong relationship between these variables as well. 

Table 4: Whether or Not the Detainee Cooperated by Providing Useful Information and If the Detainee Met the Detention Standards of the CIA

Discussion and Conclusion

In summation, based on literature, data testing, and analysis, it is concluded that the detention and interrogation program conducted by the CIA in the post-9/11 era was ineffective. More often than not, the detainees did not meet the detention standards of the CIA and likewise, the overwhelming majority of detainees did not provide useful information vital to U.S. national security and did not contribute to the thwarting of terror attacks. In addition, the least-extreme measures of interrogation often led to greater cooperation among detainees which directly contradicts former President Bush’s comments that more severe interrogation methods needed to be used and that therefore the detention and interrogation program should continue. This is extremely important when understanding the exact methods of enhanced interrogation used upon detainees and the physical and mental harm that was inflicted; although information was not being provided due to these techniques, the techniques were still being practiced. 

In terms of the hypotheses, crosstabulation testing yielded support that gave validity to both claims. Statistics suggested that increased levels of bodily harm did not yield information vital to U.S. national security and likewise the increased levels of bodily harm did not contribute to the thwarting of terrorist attacks. 

In addition to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA detention program, data testing presented within this research also adds another level of empirical evidence that contributes to the conclusions of the lack of effectiveness of the program. All in all, the CIA detention program will ultimately be remembered as a failure, and further use of enhanced interrogation techniques has ceased since the uncovering of the agency’s exploits.


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