Research Unplugged: A conversation with Jonathan Marks

man with glasses and beard speaking
Emily Wiley

Jonathan Marks

"When I testified before Congress on the topic of torture, I asked if anyone present had been tortured," Jonathan Marks told a rapt audience in the Penn State Downtown Theatre. Continued Marks, "Several people raised their hands and I asked them to describe their experiences. There's nothing more powerful than hearing directly from people who have been subject to torture or cruel or degrading inhuman treatment."

At last Wednesday's Research Unplugged event, Marks, an Oxford-educated barrister and associate professor of bioethics and law at Penn State, engaged the audience in a lively dialogue on the use and ethics of interrogation and torture.

Drawing from a professional background that includes serving as counsel for the Human Rights Watch in its case against former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, Marks focused the discussion on more current concerns, such as the Bush administration's "War on Terror" and the role of health professionals in interrogation strategies.

Although in our post 9-11 world, interrogation techniques have moved in a more violent direction, coercion wasn't always the norm. During World War II, Marks noted, Allied interrogators extracted vast amounts of information through a conversational approach. Recently, surviving American members of a top-secret special unit dubbed "P.O. Box 1142" revealed that they "got more information out of a German general during a game of chess or ping pong than what they get today through torture."

"Nobody can resist torture," continued Marks. "People will talk, but using torture and aggressive interrogation to make people talk is not a good way to capture actionable intelligence." He cited the 1992 U.S. Army Field Manual, which states that use of threats and insults is neither necessary nor effective for interrogation. Explained Marks, "Aggressive interrogation yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."

During the Korean War, Marks said, 36 U.S. airmen confessed to a plot to bomb civilian targets in Korea—a plot that did not actually exist. "They confessed because they were tortured," he said. "They were made to stand or sit in abnormal and very uncomfortable positions without moving for very long periods of time."

Following this incident, Marks said, the American government was embarrassed by the false confessions and asked psychologists to conduct research into the kinds of interrogation strategies used by the Communists. The findings led to significant changes in American military training.

Chiefly, officials introduced the "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape" (SERE) program. Marks explained, "First you learn to survive by eating nuts and berries. Then you're trained on how to evade capture. In the event that you are captured, you learn to resist interrogation. And finally, you're taught to escape."

Continued Marks, "SERE tactics were originally designed to help elite soldiers resist torture—such as sleep deprivation, hooding, isolation, and water-boarding." However, he noted, in 2002, when interrogators couldn't extract information from detainees at Guantanamo Bay, "the gloves came off," and officials decided to implement SERE techniques against prisoners detained solely on the grounds that they were alleged members of terror organizations. According to Marks, this was a misuse of the SERE approach and was a "colossal tactical error."

Rather than serving as watchdogs against torture, teams of psychologists and psychiatrists were appointed to devise individual interrogation plans at Guantanamo Bay, Marks told the audience. Citing the Stanford Prison Study of 1971 as an example, he said, "When you put good people in terrible situations, they don't tend to behave well. You don't have to have people who are predisposed to aggression for things to go wrong."

Marks expressed his concern that the media are not properly covering situations of aggressive interrogation. "The media foster a culture that is tolerant of torture. Fact is fictionalized and reality is entertainment," he said, referring to the popularity of "social experiment" television programs where participants are subjected to techniques akin to torture, and to the fictional "24." "The media are making it difficult to train interrogators and teach them to behave responsibly in interrogation scenarios."

Marks outlined seven myths about torture and interrogation, including the dangerous and prevalent assumption that aggression enhances interrogation. "We may get them to confess," he said, "but 10 or 15 years later, the confession is found to be false."

Another myth, said Marks, is that experienced interrogators want to employ these violent techniques. He noted that one army interrogator told him, "I am fed up with people like the Vice President arguing for aggressive interrogation strategies that I do not want or need. Everybody wants to talk; you just have to be the person they want to talk to."

"Silence makes us complicit," Marks cautioned the audience at the end of his talk, in response to a listener's question. "If we know these things are going on, we have moral and ethical obligations to speak out and say 'we do not support this.'"

Jonathan H. Marks, M.A., B.C.L., is associate professor of bioethics, humanities, and law in the College of the Liberal Arts, with appointments at University Park and at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. He is also a research fellow of the Rock Ethics Institute. His email is marks@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 29, 2007