Milt Bearden on Interrogation

Milt Bearden wrote this three years ago for the New York Times. He has offered it for our consideration.

Pat Lang


“In February 1993, a Pakistani named Ramsi Yousef mounted the first attack on the World Trade Center. His goal was to bring down both towers, along with their occupants. His plan failed. Two years later, with the help of Pakistani intelligence, Mr. Yousef was captured in Pakistan, and brought before American justice. He was given a speedy trial and he and his cohorts were convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences. Once in the system , however, Yousef never gave his interrogators anything of value, save the haunting premonition shared with FBI officers escorting him in a helicopter ride over the New York skyline still dominated by the World Trade Center that next time they wouldn’t fail .

Now, ten years later, and again with the help of Pakistani intelligence, Ramsi Yousef s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified as the brains in Al Qaeda behind the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, has been captured. Unlike his nephew, Mohammed will not be put in the system any time soon, if ever. He is, as the British would say, assisting the American authorities in their inquiries.
The capture of Mr. Mohammed was quickly, and jubilantly, announced by the Bush administration and soon information, with the usual contradictions, was released about exactly what he was revealing. But even as purported details of what he is telling his Pakistani and American interrogators make their way into the public domain, questions about the man and the tone of his interrogation build. This is part of the process. It is the creation of what James Jesus Angleton, the CIA legendary director of operations, called “a wilderness of mirrors”. The key will be to separate reality from fantasy.
Certainly, the person being interrogated often will not know where the reality ends and fantasy begins. This disorientation is the point, the goal. In my thirty years in the CIA s Directorate of Operations I saw more than a few interrogations of committed terrorists on two continents. One of the most successful involved a Middle Eastern terrorist captured after a particularly brazen and bloody act in the 1980s. He was held in total physical and sensory isolation until his world was synthetically reordered . Over the months his interrogator, a masterfully competent senior officer in a friendly intelligence service, allowed the captive terrorist occasional, furtive glimpses of his growing file of newspaper accounts of a tense military confrontation building between the United States and the man s country. As the stack of news clips grew, so did the drama, until the United States finally launched a lightening strike against the terrorist s homeland, killed his beloved leader, and occupied the capital. With his own world in total collapse, the terrorist turned to his only link with humanity, his interrogator, and calmly told him all he wanted to know. It was a process that took almost a year, but in the end we got it all. After he had the story, the interrogator let the terrorist in on a secret of his own — the news clips had been totally fabricated. The beloved leader was alive and well. None of it had happened.
On the other side of this, how do interrogators know when they’re getting the truth? That takes time, skill and patience. If your man is kneeling in prayer hour after hour in his cell, expect a difficult time — in the trade it’s irreverently called being all Jihaded up . But if you are dealing with a man like Mohammed, whose ego may already have come into play, you must get him talking, quite literally about anything. Then you begin with the questions you already have the answers to, to test him. The aim is to get him talking, and then begin to turn it to new areas of interrogation. Someone like Mohammed will either be a tough nut, all Jihaded up, or he might end up letting it all go early on. My guess is that he will ultimately talk, that his ego-driven claims of responsibility on Al Jazeera for some 3000 American deaths will provide the roadmap for his interrogators and the psychological warriors who will also put what he says to good use. But it will take skill and testing to separate truth from fiction, and in the process it might be necessary to reorder his personal world with a dose of fantasy
Meanwhile, exploitation of these interrogations involve all the disciplines of the intelligence and enforcement trades: deception, misdirection, and disinformation. All are necessary parts of the war on terrorism. In most cases the deception is reserved for our adversaries. But sometimes the ruses developed by the intelligence and enforcement agencies extend much further. In today’s world of instant communication, it will be likely, if not certain, the American public at some point will be misled as a byproduct of sleight-of-hand leaks intended to influence other targets. This may be happening already in the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,
Stories sourced to Pakistani officials had Mohammed recently meeting Osama bin Laden somewhere in the border area between Afghanistan and the Pakistan s rugged Baluchistan Province. Then it was along zero line, the border with North West Frontier Province. Then bin Laden’s sons had been wounded or captured. The 24/7 American media picked up the stories immediately and transformed them into breaking news, reporting that the noose was tightening on bin Laden; one report had his capture imminent. Were the stories true or fabrications or a combination of the two. We in the public simply cannot know what is fact and what is crafted fantasy. Then how can we know what to believe and, more directly, is it cricket to allow the American media to be drawn into the deception game?
With Mr. Mohammed, Al Qaeda terrorists still on the run will know that for all his evil genius, he has demonstrated one glaring and potentially dangerous weakness: a huge ego. His boastful claims on Al Jazeera television are the roadmap for his interrogators and the psychological warriors. And as with the leaks from two other Al Qaeda members recently captured in Pakistan — Ramsi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah — there probably will be selective releases of information and disinformation from Mohammed that will keep Al Qaeda in the field off balance and, it is hoped, mistake prone.
Under the old, pre-September 11, 2001, rules it was unlawful for CIA to target the American public, even indirectly, in any black propaganda effort. But under the new order of things it will likely be accepted as reasonable and just if American media becomes caught up in a deception inadvertently, when the deception is in honest pursuit of terrorists, and if deceiving the American public is not a goal of the operation. If a covert operation results in flushing bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders from hiding, who is likely to complain? It’s become a we-report-you-decide world.” Bearden

Milt Bearden is a former senior CIA official. He is the author of The Black Tulip, a novel of war in Afghanistan, and co-author of The Main Enemy, the Inside Story of the CIA s Final Showdown with the KGB.

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7 Responses to Milt Bearden on Interrogation

  1. taters says:

    Thank you for posting this absolutely terrific piece, Col. Lang. Excellent, Mr. Bearden.

  2. kim says:

    under those circumstances i wouldn’t mind so much having purposeful lies picked up and passed on by the “news” media. i generally just snort at them anyway and carry on with reality.
    except that we have a governing mob that has willfully and knowingly used lies, and the cheerleading media, to promote their america (nation and state) damaging policies.

  3. fasteddiez says:

    Mr Bearden, Colonel Lang,
    The common thread between the interrogations witnessed by you (mr. Bearden) and FBI interrogations of the past, which were undertaken to secure indictments, with the ones conducted by Hans Scharff, is that they allowed for a reasonable time period to defeat the prisoners’ resistance postures through the various techniques which you have outlined. If one believes the premise of the book “the one percent solution,” it would indicate that the National Command Authority (NCA) inserts itself in the operational goings-on of interrogations of specific prisoners.
    One level down you have the SecDef and various generals leaning on Intel Staff (if the Taguba report is to be believed, Abu Ghraib school trained interrogators were insufficient in numbers and commonly replaced with analysts and others), to provide instant results on insurgency suspects. Hence, roundups of the usual suspects at traffic checkpoints, suspects that your Shiite translators deemed guilty, etc.; mix em’ all up an stack em’ up at Abu Ghraib.
    “Take off the gloves” they say; what message does that send to young impressionable interrogators that do not have Mr. Bearden’s expertise in Real World Humint?
    For these Intel Ops to work you need the brass to cease and desist from interfering. If you rely on Iraqi translators, you must assure they have no private agendas. Once captured, and having admitted some guilt, US Intel personnel must have a reasonable expectation that your insurgents will be kept behind bars if they are indeed bad actors.
    None of this is assured right now, since as an unfortunate side effect of the Abu Ghraib Fiasco, the Iraqi Government releases prisoners as it sees fit, probably as a result of graft.
    I think it is too late to hope that the pressure-less interrogations of all but the most highly placed suspects will occur in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope I’m wrong. Better luck next time.

  4. Hannah K. O'Luthon says:

    “We in the public simply cannot know what is fact and what is crafted fantasy. Then how can we know what to believe and, more directly, is it cricket to allow the American media to be drawn into the deception game?”
    We (i.e. U.S. intelligence agencies) are not the only ones
    capable of manipulating the “reality” presented to the American public, as anyone with a retentive MEMRI and a sufficiently strong stomach to watch American network news can readily detect. The more paranoid might contemplate the distinct possibility that such efforts could even include agent provocateurs infiltrated into Al Qaeda to “help them” achieve “their” goals. Indeed,the alleged impermeability of Al Qaeda to such penetration seems
    all the more incredible when one contemplates the amazing success
    of John Walker Lindh and “Azzam the American”, not to mention the long term interest of many governments well-equipped to effect such infiltration. Fortunately, we have such loyal allies that we need not fear that the wilderness of mirrors contains “false flag” enemies working to advance those allies’ interests at the expense of American lives.

  5. taters says:

    Dear Col.,
    These timely and superb pieces by Richard Sale and Milt Bearden to me are two thirds of a trilogy. The third part would be your own excellent Op/Ed “Lessons from Vietnam in how to flip an enemy.”

  6. daCascadian says:

    A house of mirrors full of smoke indeed
    “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

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