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The Use of Torture as an Ethical Collection Method of Intelligence Research Paper


Despite the variations in global geopolitics, different nations and NGOs have undertaken intelligence services to gather economic, political/military or even social intelligence at domestic or international levels. According to Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, Intelligence can be defined as “the product resulting from the collection, collation, evaluation, analysis, integration and interpretation of collected information” (1996 p. 2-1).

It is defined in the context of espionage and correlated events to result to an intelligence cycle. This is the process of achieving intelligence, for it to be produced and become helpful to consumers. It often takes five steps which includes collection, planning and direction, processing, production, and dissemination. Further, ethics can be explained as a concept defining right and wrong or real moral principles.

It is defined as “a system of values and customs instantiated in the lives of particular groups of human beings” (Born & Wills, 2007 p.5). Additionally, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, torture is defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions (Born, 2007. p. 314).

Historically, torture has found application in political and criminal justice systems as a mean of coercion and interrogation to collect intelligence. The international law outlaws torture since it not only violates human rights but is also immoral and produces unreliable intelligence (Duffy, 2005).

However, Amnesty international asserts that the use of torture is still widespread in various nations globally. Intelligence profession is characterized by ethical and moral dilemmas and related intelligence studies on ethics face various challenges arising from secrecy of intelligence agencies and operations.

Additionally, inadequate information regarding intelligence ethical standards makes a comparative analysis difficult and hinders assessing operations of intelligence agencies alongside particular rules. This paper shall explore the use of torture as an ethical collection method of intelligence.

In analyzing the ethical and legal dilemmas, recommendations shall be put forward to suggest alternative methods that can be used by intelligence services rather to collet intelligence rather than interrogative torture (Duffy, 2005).

Intelligence Ethics and Global Terrorism

The growth of intelligence activities has thrived to eliminate global terrorism but it is limited by national as well as international law. Intelligence is a crucial concept because of secrecy, since its does not face public scrutiny and could evade the set legislations.

As a result, malpractice could emanate and remain hidden by the operators that can only be resolved by adopting a code of ethics (Goldman, 2006). There have been controversies surrounding ethical and legal issues emanating from intelligence activities especially in the criminal justice system in their pursuit to wage ‘war against terrorism’.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S intelligence service applied torture while interrogating the suspects, for the sake of combating terrorism in the world regardless of international law against torture (Sims & Gerber, 2005).

Considering the terrorism threats that affected many U.S residents, hardline policies had to be drafted to harshly counter terrorism including the use of torture for the sole purpose of gathering intelligence (Duffy, 2005).

Even with it being outlawed, torture is still used today but it should be avoided during interrogations since it results to inaccurate intelligence and more so, it’s morally wrong. Intelligence ethics are crucial in enhancing professionalism and regulation of intelligence activities.

Ethical arguments continue to emerge concerning the use of torture by the criminal justice system. Irrespective of its global disregard and drafting of treaty provisions outlawing it, torture is still applied in some nations. As a result, the ethical assertion of usage of torture in the criminal justice system remains a controversial debate. In most cases, the critics and proponents often take a utilitarian and deontological perspective (Goldman, 2006).

On the same note, a utilitarian could argue that if the total lives rescued as a result of torture are considerable, then the method is justifiable since the intended result is the chief reason in assessing its morality or merit.

On the other hand, deontologists apply general rules, which have to be followed irrespective of the results. All the same, if the result of policies legalizing torture is not certain, there follows a utilitarian opinion that torture is unethical.

Torture has however been used to get crucial information from some criminals when they are actually guilty. It has also been cited in cases of a ‘ticking time bomb scenario’ to curb detonation of theoretical nuclear bomb and to extract information.

Otherwise, utilitarian’s maintains that torture is applied in most cases to subjugate and terrorize citizens and not to achieve a given piece of information. Hence they argue that it could be preferable for some persons to die out of the explosion than innocent individuals to face torture and be killed (Born & Wills, 2007).

Historical Usage

Torture was commonly applied in various legal systems of various civil law European nations up to the start of French revolution. It comprised of Roman law theory which maintained that slaves would lie in the courts since they were susceptible to threats from their masters.

Hence their testimony could be validated when torture was in use to extract the necessary information. Legal scholars knew the inaccuracy of testimonies following threat of torture. Theoretically, torture was not aimed at achieving confession but criminal details that just the guilty person could reveal.

In the recent past, torture was being applied in England for instance during Marc Smeaton’s written confession during Anne Boleyn’s trial. Besides, Guy Fawkes revealed the information he was aware of regarding the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

The method was not applied for the sake of confession but for him to reveal his fellows in crime/conspirators. During the time, torture was uncommon in England. Thus a warrant had to be released by King James I for the torture to proceed.

From the warrant, humanitarians’ deliberations were evident, as interrogation procedures were to get severe gradually, up to the point that interrogators were convinced that fawkers had revealed the entire truth (Duffy, 2005).

In 1640, torture was outlawed in England. During enlightenment, the method was criticized in Europe where Cesare Beccaria disregarded it on the grounds of being unreasonable and cruel. French revolution outlawed its usage in France and this spread to most European counties.

Records from British security Service (MI5) that spearheaded the British Security Intelligence in the events of Second World War ascertain that during WWII, MI5 operated a ‘top-secret interrogation facility’ for detained Nazi forces dubbed Camp 020.

The camp detainees who were suspected agents were restricted in the facility far from international and national law. Then interrogators applied mental pressure and non-physical violence on detainees. Although the camp operated under firm guidelines that torture would not result to accurate intelligence, and regardless of the danger of Nazi invasion in Britain, MI5 used mental pressure to torture the detainees, which is an axiomatic rule.

However the strategy seemed successful since the legendary ‘Double Cross System’ came up where MI5 apprehended the entire wartime German agents in Britain while converting some into double-agents. MI5 collected intelligence from Nazi wartime criminals and forwarded them to allied prosecutors (Goldman, 2006).

British intelligence services during WWII took ‘rendition’ process similar to the ‘extraordinary rendition’ in the U.S. Nazi intercepts revealed by British code-breakers helped to identify German agents who operated in British imperial regions.

For efficient interrogation of the agents, MI5 detained them in Camp 020, Britain. As a result, legal issues came up regarding the detention and transfer of persons, which could be termed as kidnapping similar to the U.S process of extraordinary rendition.

The two however, differs by the fact that in the events of WWII, the captured Nazi agents were taken to Britain, a metropolitan authority for thorough interrogation through mentally demeaning techniques. Conversely, the U.S extraordinary rendition is currently drafted to take terrorist suspects to third-party nations for torture (Sims & Gerber, 2005).

Today, torture could be termed as illegal although it is still in usage by security forces to gather information for intelligence reasons from alleged terrorists. Besides, the method has also been applicable in cases of kidnapping to extract information (Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, 1996).

Ideological Commitment in the Recent past

It follows a legitimate argument that Nazi agents who were interrogated in Camp 020 in Britain were easily cracked while the ideologically dedicated terrorists encountered by intelligence services today are different. This could be explained by the fact that the German agents gave in easily due to their poor training and had no ideological commitments whatsoever.

Probably, the success rate of MI5 could be therefore, attributed to this fact and violence was not necessary for the interrogators to crack the Nazi agents since they lacked ideological commitments. However, other conflicts depicts that MI5 success should not be taken for granted since it has gathered intelligence during the cold war from soviet espionage agents like atom spies with the help of interrogator Jim Skardon.

Besides, in Algeria, the French military has been cited as one way in which torture was evidenced to be effective. This is morally wrong and should instead be cited to abolish torture. During the 1950s counter-insurgency operations in Algeria, the French military applied torture to collect intelligence immediately.

All the same, even with their success, in the long run, torture was noted as being counter-productive due to its widely being used while extreme circumstances in which it only to be used was turned into a norm. Only minute military benefits were incurred from use of torture as asserted by General Jacques Massu who headed the French campaigns (Born & Wills, 2007).

Ethical Dilemmas against Torture

As a result of current controversies regarding secret detention chambers, renditions, and most importantly, the practice of torture by intelligence services, this has prompted the implementation of ethical regulations. It been indicated by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that prompted the adoption of ‘European Code of Intelligence Ethics’ for Council of Europe (CoE) member states in 2005.

Intelligence agencies have to adopt codes of conduct and be supervised on their undertakings. In 2007 PACE also embraced a resolution that maintained that “it is necessary to promote within the UN framework codes of conduct for all security and military services, based on the respect for human rights, humanitarian law and democratic political control” (Born & Wills, 2007 p.2). This concern by chief European bodies expresses a necessity to carry out an evaluation on intelligence ethics.

Following September 11 attack, investigative research reveals that there is evidence of application of torture by the U.S interrogators on terrorist detainees particularly in their interrogation facility located at Guantanamo Bay. The facility is well known for torture, dehumanization of detainees, coercion and abuse.

Besides in 2004, the Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq ascertained the application of force by US interrogators of terrorist suspects where the U.S Defense Department was prompted to draft its interrogations rules close to the International law although the interrogation methods applied by Central Intelligence Unit (CIA) still remains unclear (Sims & Gerber, 2005).

Significantly, in 2008, the so called ‘accidental’ damage of crucial videotapes terrorist detainees’ interrogations by CIA triggers doubt about CIA use of torture techniques. However the U.S media assumes that torture is inseparable from interrogation and portrays it as an effective method where physical coercion could facilitate achievement of accurate intelligence.

However, historically, this is not correct since unreliable intelligence is the outcome of use of torture. Even without considering the ethical aspect, counterterrorism efforts by use of torture and its glorification by the U.S media have failed to grasp the crucial concept that torture always results to unreliable intelligence and nether does it prevent terrorist attacks.

However, other proponents of the torture technique to combat terrorism maintain that severe interrogation procedures could act effectively to deter terrorism. All the same, this seems invalid since most of the terrorist facilitators are prepared to commit suicide and would neither be intimidated by use of torture from interrogators (Born & Wills, 2007).

Intelligence Collection

Collection forms the basics of intelligence where information is gathered by various means to facilitate intelligence cycle. Collection activities falls under human intelligence (HUMINT) that involves information gathered by human such as intelligence agents, informers, detainees among other human sources.

Open source intelligence (OSINT) is information gathered from unclassified sources like media, internet, private sources and academic work and forms the largest percentage of intelligence gathered. Signals intelligence (SIGNINT) entails interruption and observing of communication signals by various advanced technical procedures. Imagery intelligence (IMINT) serves to analyze the actions of persons and large organizations collected through photography.

Ethical debates arise from interrogation methods applied while others arise from HUMINT collection following transfer of individuals by intelligence service into other states where they could be tortured. This is dubbed as ‘extraordinary rendition/ outsourcing torture’, which has triggered extreme criticism (Goldman, 2010).

Some western intelligence agencies have intentionally transported persons to jurisdictions where torture is not outlawed for purposes of intelligence collection. In addition, intelligence services count on informers domestically and internationally to collect intelligence.

As a result, the agencies are forced to befriend gangs or persons engaging in outlawed activities where they could be at danger for the purposes of gathering information. Hence, ethical concerns emerge where intelligence staff subjects themselves to risks as well as in recruiting them on how to extract intelligence and from which sources.

Some of intelligence agents could even involve themselves in illegal or immoral actions to pursue criminals (Born & Wills, 2007).

Therefore, it follows that intelligence service has various ethical dilemmas in the pursuit of gathering information. HUMINT collection therefore, subjects the agents into dangers and agencies have a role of evaluating these risks that the staff could be subjected to.

Such dangers have to be proportional to the benefits incurred in the process of collecting intelligence. Ethical obligations cannot be disregarded to safeguard human sources and other individuals concerned. Signal and Imagery intelligence on the other hand, also triggers relevant ethical challenges since they interfere with privacy of persons as well as groups.

They intrude individual privacies and should be controlled to ensure minimal trespass. However, with development of technology, SIGINT and IMINT continue to be dynamic and hard to regulate (Goldman, 2010).


Collection of intelligence involves acquiring information as well as provisioning it into elements. It involves managing various activities comprising collection strategies to safeguard optimization of the existing intelligence resources. Intelligence collection has to adhere to the requirements of the consumers.

Grounded on given intelligence necessities, collection activities are awarded particular taskings for collection of information. The taskings could apply widespread intelligence disciplines (Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, 1996).

Analysts should keep off from politicization of intelligence outcome either due to personal political disposition or even to gain political influence. Intelligence objectivity is vital, bearing in mind that the outcome could influence various activities. It should therefore be neutral and not released under particular political perspective.

Intelligence officials also have a moral responsibility not to go beyond the genuinely warranted intelligence. They have to be precautious in their collection, analysis and dissemination of information. This could help to ensure that the outcome is applied with caution by the government to draft a policy (Goldman, 2006).

Intelligence collection management could be effective in validating the collected intelligence. Besides directing and managing, collection of intelligence is important along with its dissemination. Collection of intelligence and its evaluation should be conducted on approval.

Collection priorities have to be analyzed and if any conflict arises, it should be resolved. Utility of National intelligence should also be promoted to the citizens of the specified nation. The intelligence officers should be diverse through recruitment and training.

The officers should operate effectively against evolving threats to the national security. Such intelligence should be optimized through the value of intelligence collected. The collected information should be practical for reliable intelligence to be achieved (Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, 1996).

‘All source Intelligence’ comprises of the conclusion of intelligence cycle since it integrates information obtained from HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, OSINT and MASINT. As a result, reinforced information is obtained by application of multiple sources in integration of chief data points.

All source intelligence approach allows the specific intelligence discipline to gather particular data for intelligence agency to evaluate all features of intelligence target for a clear consideration of its activities. The approach is the most effective mode of collection and only a few countries can make its use (Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, 1996).

Computer intrusion is an alternative way of collecting intelligence rather than torture interrogations. Foreign intelligence agencies sometimes could make use of computer hackers to collect very sensitive and confidential information or even interrupt with telecommunications.

The computer hackers can obtain sensitive data from governments or other computer systems. Although this would trigger ethical issues as well, computer intrusion could be more preferable than torture interrogations for the purpose of collecting intelligence (Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, 1996).


Various literatures regarding intelligence pays a key emphasis on ethical dilemmas resulting from intelligence collection particularly interrogation techniques employed and if torture could be in anyway important in gathering important information.

From critics’ perspectives, the attack of September 11 prompted profound and lasting effect on the aspect of international security that has been disregarded by historical lessons. Vast literature reviewed disregards the use of torture while some others underline that torture can be applied following a strict licensing procedure.

They maintain that torture could only be justified in case of a ticking bomb scenario for individuals to reveal crucial information. Others maintain that it can only be embraced if the outcomes outweigh the harm that will result in particular situations.

In my opinion, torture is incorrect as depicted by British experiences while non-violence interrogations are crucial since the immediate benefits achieved from torture are overshadowed by the lasting destruction to intelligence collection.

Application of violence in interrogation process gives out unreliable intelligence and eventually becomes counter-productive hence a catastrophic failure to intelligence agencies. The destructive social impact of torture emanates from institutional dynamics and not on the imaginative moral rationale such as that of a ticking bomb scenario.


Born, H., & Wills, A. (2007). “Intelligence Ethics: A Complete Cycle?” ECPR Conference, Pisa. Web.

Duffy, H. (2005). The “War on Terror” and the Framework of International Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goldman, J. (2006). Ethics of Spying – A Reader for the Intelligence Professional. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Interagency OPSEC Support Staff (1996). Intelligence Threat Handbook. Darby, PA: DIANE Publishing Company.

Sims, J. E., & Gerber, B. (2005). Transforming U.S Intelligence. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

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