SIA’s Gartner examines why we torture

SIA director Scott Sigmund Gartner
SIA director Scott Sigmund Gartner

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A new article by Penn State School of International Affairs director and foreign policy and national security expert Scott Sigmund Gartner article examines why states value unreliable information achieved by torture when it is widely morally condemned and denounced for generating inaccurate intelligence.

“Unbalanced Policy Priorities and the Interrogation of Terror Suspects,” which Garter co-authored with Catherine Langlois of Georgetown University, was published this month in the Foreign Policy Analysis Journal.

“Why do nations—especially those motivated by liberal norms—practice torture in the face of broad and intense condemnation?” the article asks. “For some, the critical answer to the why-do-liberal-states-torture question is their claim that sometimes valuable, timely information necessary for their security can only be obtained using coercive methods. Some people value the avoidance Type II Errors—errors of omission—so strongly that they are willing to employ unreliable data likely to generate Type I Errors—errors of commission. For example, fearing another 9/11, policymakers might employ torture, even if they abhor it, to obtain intelligence on terror group leaders. That intelligence will be unreliable and may lead to the assassination of the wrong person. If their fear of another terrorist attack is so strong, they are willing to accept that mistake for a chance to target the right leader. Thus, views about torture are embedded in views on the reliability of intelligence and the balance between making different types of mistakes.”

Using the Kurdistan Workers' Party’sconflict with Turkey and 9/11 in the U.S. as examples, the article argues that anti-torture advocacy might be more effective targeting preferences over unreliable intelligence and error types than reinforcing the already strong morality of anti-torture norms.

Gartner is director and professor at the Penn State School of International Affairs. His current research interests include net assessment, suicide in the military, dispute resolution, and the role of wartime information on decision making. He has published in journals such as the American Political Science Review, International Studies Quarterly, Small Wars Journal, and the American Sociological Review. He is author of Strategic Assessment in War (Yale University Press), and his most recent book (with Gary Segura), Calculating War: The Public and a Theory of Conflict, is forthcoming (2016) from Cambridge University Press.

Langlois is a professor of economics at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She is interested in game theoretic approaches to understanding conflict and cooperation, war and bargaining, and strategic counter-terror. Her work has been published in journals such as World Politics, American Journal of Political Science, and International Studies Quarterly.