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The art of interrogation

Experts say subtle psychological ploys may be better than thumbscrews when it comes to getting terror suspects to confess.

March 15, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

We've all seen it in the movies: the tough-guy private eye stubbing out a Camel filter on a suspect's neck and barking, "We can do this the easy way or the hard way." Or, at the other end of the B-movie moral spectrum, the sneering Gestapo captain, brandishing a hypodermic needle and chortling (with back-lot Bavarian inflection), "Vee haf vays to make you talk!"

Interrogation, as depicted in pop culture, invariably works. Sooner or later, the detainee cracks, spills his guts and lets slip some crucial plot-turning piece of information. A crime boss is nailed, an assassination plot thwarted, a deadly sneak attack nipped in the bud. The means, however mean-spirited, ultimately justify the ends.

Following the capture in Pakistan earlier this month of suspected Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, U.S. government, law enforcement and media circles have been wrestling with how far America and its allies in the war on terrorism should go to squeeze information out of the reputed mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

With thousands of lives potentially at stake, the temptation is great to use any means necessary on Mohammed. The White House has insisted that he will be treated humanely, in accordance with standards of international law. But the administration also contends that Al Qaeda warriors are "unlawful combatants," and are therefore not protected by the provisions of the Geneva Convention governing treatment of POWs. A recent story in The Times quoted a U.S. official as saying that interrogators would be "pushing the envelope" to make Mohammed talk.

Human rights organizations already have raised alarms over allegations of torture of prisoners being held at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and of others taken into custody since Sept. 11. It's also possible that Pakistani officials already have worked Mohammed over, or that he will be put in the hands of some allied third country that won't feel squeamish about twisting his arm -- or worse.

Yet physical and psychological torture, while sometimes brutally effective, often fails to achieve its goal of getting at the truth.

Experts say that physical and/or psychological abuse may harden, rather than weaken, a prisoner's resistance to his captors. Minds clouded by pain or drugs, or addled by sleep deprivation, may have trouble recalling important details. Above all, a person under extreme physical duress may say almost anything just to stop the agony.

"Everybody breaks if it's no holds barred. It's just a matter of when. Ask men and women who were prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton," Stan B. Walters, a nationally known authority on interrogation methods, says, referring to the notorious Viet Cong prisoner of war camp.

Getting information from a criminal suspect or a captured military combatant -- accurate, timely, useful information, the kind that can keep bombs from exploding, buildings from crumbling, lives from being lost -- usually requires something far more subtle than thumbscrews, Walters and other experts say. Often it requires playing a mind game of near-diabolical skill and nuance, a blend of psychological seduction, flattery and largely feigned empathy owing more to Aristotle, the father of Western logic, with a touch of Mata Hari, than to Torquemada, the sinister head henchman of the Spanish Inquisition.

"Even in law enforcement, a goodly number think that if you ask the question in nasty enough ways, the guy's going to tell you the truth. Well, unless you've got some masochistic wimp who loves being beaten up, that ain't gonna happen," says John Hess, who in the 1980s developed a highly influential program of interrogation methods for the FBI that the agency still uses today.

From small-town deputies to federal agents, some law enforcement officials still get their ideas about interrogation from cop shows, Hess says. "The bad ones, their role model is basically designed from some media, like Kojak, or ["NYPD Blue's" Andy] Sipowicz today. They'd basically just grill 'em. They'd put a guy under the light and they'd try to make 'em look like a buffoon. That's not an interrogation. That's cross-examination. And the only person who ever got a confession in cross-examination was Perry Mason."

Less science than art, more Sigmund Freud than the Marquis de Sade, effective interrogation technique often demands perceptiveness, imagination and a knack for role-playing, experts say. Instead of coming on like Barney Fife with his knickers in a twist, Hess says, good professional interrogators should follow Aristotle's golden precepts of credibility, logical reason and emotional reason: "You persuade people using ethos, logos and pathos."

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