“What Is Interrogation?”

   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.




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10 Responses to “What Is Interrogation?”

  1. mike says:

    Bukovsky, a victim of torture by the KGB says: “Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one’s sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists.”
    Bukovsky also speculates that Bush’s use of torture may be because of his adolescent crush on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent.

  2. Grimgrin says:

    This article puts it’s finger on the button when it says “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.”. Allmost everything I’ve read indicates that the U.S. doen’t have that kind of detailed knowledge about either the resistance in Iraq or Al Queada. While I know I have no good idea of the state of American intellegence, the fact that there are reports coming out of “erroneous renditions” in Europe and Pakistani fruit vendors held at Guantanamo seems to indicate there’s still difficulty identifying who is or isn’t a terrorist. If they’re having a hard time with the most basic question, I’m not confident they’re able to assemble the kind of detailed dossier on operations the article discusses. Combine that lack of basic information with a relentless pressure to get results fromt the Administration, and it’s easy to see how torture becomes an attractive option. Reminds me of a quote from the review of “The One Percent Doctrine”
    “I said he was important,” Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,” Tenet replied. Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?” Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

  3. fasteddiez says:

    Colonel, Mr. Sale,
    I had the pleasure of hearing Hans Scharff speak to our platoon in Camp Pendleton (USMC)about his WWII years (during the mid-nineties). He was getting on in years, lived close by in L.A. and died a few years later. He received a standing ovation from our small group, after his talk and question-answer session. His book was required reading (among other requirements: training; screenings performance evals) before any neophyte would-be interrogator was sent to formal MOS school.
    Alas, our field is no more; interrogators were aborbed into the Counterinteligence field (CI) shortly after I retired (1999). Scharff was critical of the Gestapo and CI types in the Heer, especialy as to their mental capabilities and wooden demeanors. I can only hope that my interrogator confreres did not forget to turn in their personalities at the company office prior to checking in at CI, (Typical anti-CI barb, of the kind which the Colonel has oft heard before).
    Seriously, the field now does CI/Humint and operates with Human Exploitation Teams (HET)…As I did in the nineties) (kind of sounds white slavery-ish), in direct support of the trigger pullers. A Marine Intel Officer’s letter is posted on Larry Johnson’s NO QUARTER SITE – link http://noquarter.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/09/a_marine_in_ira.html#more
    that addresses modern intel driven Ops in “the Anbar.”
    I might post more as more respondents pitch in, but remember, Scharff had a lot of information to put into his “we know all,” and “file and dossier” gabfests. Nowadays with these open source type enemies, some harried interrogators are lucky to get the prisoners’ circumstances of capture (from a doctrinal point of view, a minimal starting point).

  4. zanzibar says:

    This is what happens when faulty intelligence coupled with torture as the method for interrogation ensnares innocents. As the Canadian inquiry has determined there was no evidence linking this man to any terrorist activity – he was an innocent who was renditioned and tortured. Maybe he has received some measure of justice through exoneration but this story should provide caution to the acceptability of our governments behavior. Since none at Gitmo have been brought to a fair trial under court martial rules how do we know that other innocents have not been caught up in the dragnet? What does it say about our society that we are willing to tolerate such treatment of potential innocents and are only willing to try detainees in kangaroo courts?
    I know the argument that Bush uses is that he can’t be too careful in protecting American citizens from terrorists. Does that mean innocent people wrongly accused, tortured and detained for years without charge just become collateral damage?
    I am glad that professionals believe that torture is not an effective strategy to elicit information from captured combatants or even those just picked up off the street as they had the wrong name.

  5. Carl Osgood says:

    I remember hearing about the German interrogators when I went through POW training in the Air Force in 1984. I couldn’t tell you whether it was Schraff or not, but they were so good they even, at least once, let an American prisoner fly an FW190 fighter, knowing that he wouldn’t take it England. And, they were right, he brought it back!

  6. Mule says:

    Fasteddiez brings up an interesting point regarding the ‘asymmetry of knowledge’ that exists.
    We, in the developed world, have a bevy of info available to credit agencies, governments, employers, etc., but they have little. We exist in the information grid, and they do not.
    There is an inherent inequality there. So, when they interrogate one of ‘us’, they can use pretexting (see the HP scandal) or pay $20 to some online agency and discover much, much, more than we realize.
    When we interrogate them?

  7. Fred says:

    Interesting discussion but not, in my experience, very relevant to the ordinary world of interrogation. I was an interrogator in Vietnam for a year and then went on to ther things outside thea army. So my experience is not in the same league with some of your other commenters. But the thing I remember is how little we knew about the PWs. Practically the only information I recall getting was the results of earlier interrogations and some data about the place and time of capture. And this was at a national interrogation center in Saigon, not a field unit. Most of those guys couldn’t even confirm the place of capture. The average guy in any army in any war knows almost nothing of any interest to anyone. Not even where he is at. (“We headed East and went where we were told.”) On a day to day basis I think those are the ones who are likely to be on the receiving end of “aggressive” interrogation. We have hundreds of them for every Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
    I would like to add a small bit of real life experience. My unit never beat on prosoners that I knew of, but we did pull them in from all over Vietnam. (In a desparate search for someone , anyone, who knew something, anything. We actually did fairly well reporting training, logistics, procedures etc. But not immediately combat-usefull kinds of data.) Anyway, I did wind up once in front of a guy who had been worked over pretty hard before he got us. He was completely worthless as a source. He was so focused on avoiding any more of that that he couldn’t think about anything we asked. You want to know about nuclear weapons in Vietnam, he heard rumors that …. The key to an interrogation is to get the source talking and then steer the discussion. And he had no sponteneity left in him.
    The army intelligence school training always asserted that the army did not use torture because it doesn’t get you good information. We didn’t really believe it and made jokes about it all the time. After dealing with this guy and thinking about it, I came to believe that they had told us the truth. I wish I could still believe that.

  8. johnieb says:

    My experience at the other end of the chain in 1968-69 with a Bde. of the Cav parallels yours, Fred, which is good to know; it’s something I’ve wondered about over the years.
    Regrettably, “aggressive interrogation” occured, not always for information, but from frustration, as near as I could tell.

  9. Dr. Peter Swartz says:

    I am a clinical psychologist interested in understanding and using empathy to enhance data gathered in an interrogation. I have developed a curriculum designed to teach the use of empathy. It does not include the need to like or have sympathy for the subject. It does, as Col. Herrington stated: ” ask myself, if I were in his place, how would I like to be treated?”. The key is the ability to temporarily suspend one’s own points of view in order to fully understand the subject, his points of view, and his experience–both in the moment and in general.
    I would be interested to hear any feedback, and whether there is any interest in my curriculum on this subject.

  10. PW says:

    If the senate voted in 2005 to make torture illegal, would the
    memos authorizing torture be evidence of a criminal offense?
    Here are two relevant facts and a statement by widely quoted
    interrogation expert Col. Stuart A. Herrington.
    10/5/05 – Forty-six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one
    independent in voting to define and limit interrogation
    techniques that U.S. troops may use against terrorism suspects.
    The measure bans the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading”
    treatment of any prisoner in the hands of the United States.
    10/5/07 – Leaked Justice Department memos reveal the
    authorization (in 10/05) of the Central Intelligence Agency to
    use its most extreme interrogation techniques, including extreme
    cold, head slapping, sleep deprivation and simulated drowning
    known as “water-boarding.”
    10/14/07 – On the NPR program Fresh Air – Col. Stuart A. Herrington,
    interrogation expert
    (1965- present), “I am not surprised by the news since the
    Administration was under pressure to protect intelligence
    personnel who had been reassured their methods since 9/11 were
    legal. I am disappointed because even after the ugly revelations
    of misconduct by interrogators in early 2004, the administration
    appears to remain bounded by a misguided and ill-informed belief
    that brutal interrogation means are effective in spite
    over-whelming feedback from professional interrogators that they
    are not.”

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