How a Trained Interrogator Effectively Exploits a Terrorist Detainee Part 1

Over the last almost two decades of counterinsurgency in Southwest Asia, thousands of terrorist and insurgents have been captured on the battlefield. Additionally, terrorists have been captured all over the world from the Philippine Islands in the Pacific region, to Somalia in East Africa.

Removing a terrorist from the battlefield is important. Equally important is effectively interrogating a terrorist with the goal of gaining accurate information of intelligence value.

The Western world has had many healthy debates on the treatment of detainees. One of the most common debates has been on the tactics, techniques and procedures relating to the interrogation of detainees. While there have been a few cases of mistreatment of detainees by military personnel which have made global news, the perpetrators of which have rightly been punished according to applicable law, the overwhelming majority of interrogations have been conducted in accordance with the Law of War (LoW) and Geneva Conventions (GC).

During my own training as an interrogator, and my subsequent 3 year tenure as a senior instructor of military interrogators, substantive, required, formal training was provided on the content and non-negotiability of both the LoW and GC to all future interrogators. The training is always conducted by Judge Advocate General military attorneys. During the extensive role playing training that military interrogators go through, a Law of War violation is an automatic failure.

Despite the importance the Western world attaches to the Law of War and Geneva Conventions in the treatment of detainees, there are still several common myths surrounding interrogation which persist.

During my online research and the following of this longstanding public debate, I have come across the widely held perception that the military interrogator’s goal during interrogation is to get the detainee to say what the interrogator wants to hear – to get a confession. It is the perception that this goal encourages the interrogator to use whatever means necessary, including torture, in order to accomplish that goal.

The sensationalized portrayal of interrogations in movies and television often provide additional support to this perception.

This perception is in fact the opposite of the truth. The goal of an interrogator is to gain information that is complete, truthful and accurate. The lives of people are literally at stake. As I will show in this and subsequent articles, the method by which this is accomplished is a carefully thought out and explicitly doctrinally defined methodology that has been proven and refined over nearly two decades during the Global War on Terror as being the best way to gain accurate intelligence, while remaining compliant with the Law of War and Geneva Conventions.

It is worthy of note that the Geneva Conventions make a distinction between an Enemy Prisoner of War (EPW) and an Unlawful Enemy Combatant (UEC), and provides for differences in the rights accorded to each category of detainee. Despite this provision, the United States military has decided to provide all the rights of an EPW to UEC’s.

Another common misperception that is advocated by many public figures surrounds the use and effectiveness of torture.

By international law, and US policy, torture is prohibited when interrogating terrorist detainees. It has been my experience that, in practice, interrogators not only do NOT cross the line into techniques that could be considered torture, they are prohibited by policy from any activities that even come close to that line. I fully support this default position as a matter of morality, policy and practice.

However, a related misperception concerns the utilitarian argument against torture that asserts there is no circumstance under which torture could lead to information of intelligence value that is truthful and accurate, because the detainee would be willing to tell the interrogator anything that he thinks the interrogator wants to hear, in order to make the torture stop.

This position is held by many National Security opinion makers, legislators, activists, and senior military leaders. It’s a position that I understand.

However, there a few elements contained in the discussion regarding the utilitarian argument that some believe have been insufficiently attended to.

First, as one who has closely followed this debate for over a decade, I have yet to come across a universally agreed to, all encompassing, specific definition of torture that is sufficient in forming a definitive conclusion as to the utility of torture in interrogation methods. Many techniques can be universally be agreed upon to constitute torture as they cause severe pain and suffering – waterboarding, beatings, prolonged sensory deprivation, starvation, and the like. It is methods of torture similar to these that are usually mentioned in the debate.

The United Nations Convention against Torture does provide a definition of torture, but many see the definition as being overly broad and insufficient to cover every operational circumstance.

Other specific, conceivable techniques upon which there might not be universal agreement about whether or not they constitute torture are, for instance, having the detainee do pushups to muscle failure, stress positions, running sprints to exhaustion until vomiting, being blasted in the face with cold water from a high pressure hose, etc. Many involved in this debate consider these acts to cause severe pain and suffering, and to therefore constitute torture. Others do not consider these techniques to cause severe pain and suffering, and therefore do not consider them to be torture. Military doctrine currently disallows the use of these techniques on detainees.

*I am not advocating for any of the techniques listed above.

My purpose is discussing these techniques is to explore the possible utility of these doctrinally prohibited techniques under hypothetical conditions.

Many National Security figures, politicians and activists claim that these physically coercive techniques can NEVER work, as I pointed out previously, because the detainee will say anything to make them stop, thereby giving the interrogator false information.

I believe the binary scenario envisioned by such figures doesn’t account for all the different types of scenarios under which an interrogation can take place. For example, if an interrogator is facing a detainee for the first time, and does NOT have access to previously collected intelligence on the terrorist, the ability to reach back personally or via colleagues to other operationally tested informants knowledgeable about the detainee who can corroborate what the detainee says, a profile of the detainee’s psychosocial history, knowledge of the streets from where the detainee has come, who he knows, people of influence in his life, past terrorist acts, his circumstances of capture, access to the document exploitation resulting from the capture, and doesn’t have already have a good idea of the knowledgeability of the terrorist, then the interrogation is taking place in a vacuum, with no way to corroborate the terrorist’s statements.

If the interrogator has no “control questions” (questions the interrogator already knows the answers to), and no skills or training in deception detection, then the interrogator has no way of ascertaining the truthfulness and accuracy of the detainee’s statements.

If, under the circumstances described above where none of this is in place, the interrogator resorts to coercive methods, including torture, I would question the veracity of any intelligence reporting produced as a result of this interrogation.

However, if all of the elements described above are in place and, at certain points of resistance in an interrogation, a physically coercive method is used or even proposed to the detainee when the interrogator reaches a point where the detainee has started to be verifiably deceptive, it is hypothetically feasible that more coercive techniques could be used to break through the resistance.

In other words, there are possibly some circumstances under which carefully selected coercive techniques could have utility in the collection of intelligence during an interrogation, if all of the above abilities and information are available to the interrogator. Many believe this more nuanced view of coercive techniques is more accurate than the binary view presented in movies and on television in which suspects quickly give accurate information in response to coercive techniques, and the opposite extreme proposed by activists in which coercive techniques can never lead to accurate intelligence.

My goal is not to advocate the use or morality of torture. My discussion is limited to exploring the claims of those who say it can never have utility because it will always lead to false confessions and inaccurate information, versus the possibility, under certain circumstances, that coercive methods could facilitate the collection of intelligence that is truthful, accurate, and able to be corroborated, that otherwise would not be obtained, and that would not lead to false confessions.

In subsequent articles I will discuss the mechanics of interrogation, describing how proper planning and preparation prior to an interrogation can give the interrogator a profile that can guide rapport building, psychological approaches, and deception detection techniques that will maximize the collection of truthful and accurate intelligence.

The Global War on Terror continues. The debate on coercive interrogation techniques has been had, and I suspect will continue.

© S.R. Mogck for De Angelis & Associates 2019

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