With the earsplitting din of the current debate about whether to use torture in interrogating terrorist prisoners, it may be helpful, even educational, to define what an interrogation is, and how it is properly carried out, as opposed to the disagreeable prospect of torturing information out of prisoniers, a practice which would puke up America’s record of promoting human rights..
According to retired a former very senior CIA official, interrogation is, in the first place, a function of counterintelligence which he defined as: “A huge research effort that involves consulting of massive and detailed files.” It is the data in those files that plays the key role, the official said. How the data is applied and used, especially the timing of its use, depends on the perceptiveness, the sensibility, the sheer artistry of the interrogator, he said.
This entirely rules out the use of kind of outright brutality.
One of the U.S. Army’s top spycatchers, retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, who has interrogated suspects ranging from henchmen of former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega, to Vietcong operatives and Soviet double agents, said to me: “It is never proper to mistreat a prisoner.”
In his book, “Stalking the Vietcong,” Herrington, a member of the Phoenix program in Vietnam, said: “One of the keys to securing cooperation of a source was to disarm him psychologically by decent treatment.” Herrington recently added, in an interview: “Nothing else works as well.”
He said in addition: “There is basic human decency involved. The prisoner in front of you is a father, a brother or a son. He’s the same as you are, and I always asked myself, if I were in his place, how would I like to be treated.”
According to Herrington and others, the main agent for dislodging information from a prisoner is not torture or coercion but hard data. The burden of how best to use that data to obtain solid results falls on the questioner, who must skillfully use the massed facts in a game of quick wits and timing to get his subject to talk.
When German interrogators like Hans Scharff, a top Luftwaffe interrogator, went to ask a downed U.S. flyer questions, they were armed with a card file system that had the serial number of every U.S. Air Force officer, most of which had been gathered by foreign agents, Luftwaffe squadrons, frontline army units, police squads, the Boy Scouts, even housewives. The serial numbers were then divided into Air Force Reserves, newly commissioned West Pointers or the Flying Cadets, according to Scharff’s book.
Interrogators like Scharff also had the squadron history of every U.S. bomber group that showed when the squadron was commissioned, where it had started training, where it departed from in the United States and where it landed in Europe. It even had data as minute as the fact a certain U.S. pilot had named his B-17 “Sunny” after his wife.
Scharff’s command also had every word spoken from American plane to American plane or from the plane to its airbase, thanks to German radio intercepts. The intercepts told the exact minute and second of the words used and the frequency over which they had been sent. Using the intercepts, the German would compile a dossier on the exact unit that was overflowing with facts, even down to pictures that had appeared of American flyers in British newspapers, for example.
Schraff’s strategy was simply to engage a prisoner in conversation, whether it was in his office or taking the man out on a hike up a mountain path. Any subject would do: sports, the home country, hobbies, family, or friends. Sometimes Schraff would simply sit and swap stories with a subject. But Schraff, at the precisely right moment, would begin to feed into his remarks bits of intelligence data about his unit and home base, to the point where the prisoner was truly startled by how much Schraff knew about him or his outfit and so that the prisoner would begin to divulge secrets simply because he assumed that Schraff already knew them.
This was particularly the case with one pilot, a West Point graduate, who had become a U.S. Army Air Corps officer based at Wattisham, England. The American officer was part of a newly arrived P-38 Fighter Group that Schraff had never heard of and he was very stubborn and didn’t answer questions. But after Schraff’s work on him, he found the flyer busy filling in all the badly needed blanks, interrupting himself to say to Schraff: “Of course, you know all of this already.”
A serving CIA official told me: “The secret you are trying to get sits at the very center of your questioning. But if you know everything that surrounds that secret, the man you are interrogating is liable to relax and think you already have it and he will feel no constraint about giving you something you already have.”
Herrington stressed that interrogation is mainly “detail work,” involving countless hours of persist checking and cross-checking the voluminous bits of information and leads, always hoping for a big break.
Sometimes manipulation was used. In Vietnam, Herrington had a Vietcong target by the name of Tu Doc. He had been captured and had stubbornly resisted all attempts to make him talk. Herrington and his group took the man openly around a city in a car, so that the word got out that Tu Doc had betrayed the revolution.
Tu Doc began then to cooperate of his own free will, identifying agents.
In another case, Herrington had shown a Vietcong officer how his superiors had lied to him about a mission that has resulted in severe losses of his men. The Vietcong switched sides out of resentment and he identified many Vietcong cells which were rolled up and with the compilation of new target folders came more arrests.
One thing that is not revealed by Schraff or Herrington is the sequence in which the questions were asked. “The sequence is the key,” Herrington said, because it’s in the sequence of the questions that the element of surprise is used.”
Schraff, for example, made deliberate mistakes when he talked to a prisoner, which prisoners could not resist correcting, even at the cost of betraying security.
Herrington described the tactic of deliberately involving the subject in a discussion off the point, then surprising him by a direct question.
“The surprise of a direct question when you are not expecting it is an extremely potent weapon,” he said.
The sequence of questioning is key. I once read the a large portion of the transcript of Israel’s interrogation of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, a chief figure of the Holocaust. I noticed that the sequence of the questions was missing. I called up a senior Israeli and asked him why? “That would be giving away too much,” he said.