The Limitations of Interrogation

The use of brutality and torture in interrogation by democracies in the face of terrorism is contentious, divisive and dangerous. Terrorists seek to undermine the people’s belief in the states’ ability to govern, so if democracies can be forced into using totalitarian measures, terrorists have succeeded in their aim.

On the other hand, if the lives of innocent citizens can be saved through the timely questioning of suspects, terror can be seen to have failed.

This article seeks to explain how security forces think about interrogation, how they use it, and the dividing line over which legitimate methods of questioning become illegal torture.

The history of interrogation started in small-scale inter-tribal fracas with the brutal questioning of captives destined to become slaves or be killed. However, just as military commanders today recognise that torture does not produce reliable information, there has always been a clear distinction between abusing, torturing and killing enemy prisoners – as revenge, or to discourage the enemy; and to obtain battlefield information.

Modern interrogation techniques developed as the scale of modern warfare grew. As battles produced more prisoners, systems needed to be developed to process them. Large-scale armies needed large intelligence gathering and collating units, which had to operate uniformly to a set of clear rules in order to create useful intelligence from the mass of unconnected, confusing information that all military operations generate. The source of particular pieces of information is vital to evaluating their importance and accuracy, so as intelligence units grew in size, so too did the rules for uniformity in the questioning of prisoners – with interrogation techniques as part of the detail.

A blurring has occurred between tactical questioning and battlefield interrogation – which are legitimate battlefield activities, and torture, which is banned by the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Convention Against Torture. This blurring has occurred because of the need to interrogate prisoners as soon as possible, while they are still experiencing the shock of capture. This extreme form of disorientation, if handled skilfully by interrogators, will produce reliable, up-to-date information that is of immediate use by planners and commanders.

But in recent campaigns, too much time has been allowed to elapse between capture and interrogation, diminishing the “shock of capture”. In some cases this has led to the imposition of measures intended to prolong or re-establish “shock of capture”. Such measures are illegal, and have been used by US forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The so-called “shock of capture” is an extreme condition in which disorientation, shame, grief and fear reduce the ability of combat soldiers to resist interrogation. Special forces troops, and also many terrorist groups, are trained to understand this condition, and to use their own techniques to overcome the often-severe psychological pressure of being captured by the enemy. From the interrogators’ perspective, a lot needs to be done as quickly as possible to take full advantage of this pressure.

Successful military interrogation starts with selecting the right prisoners for tactical questioning, then getting them to a proper interrogation centre, in front of trained interrogators. Most prisoners in any war know very little and are of no intelligence value. But there are also very small numbers of people, like special forces, headquarters staff, senior commanders and of course intelligence staff, who’s information could make the difference between victory and defeat, or reduce casualties. Identifying these people rapidly is the most important part of the interrogation process, particularly as they will certainly be trained in interrogation resistance.

Tactical questioning is the first stage, and lasts 12 to 24 hours, during which prisoners are left to stand in cold conditions, isolated from everybody else, given only basic food and water, and subjected to intensive periods of questioning, where the interrogator will use everything from body language assessment to checking up on facts, to evaluate each prisoner. It’s vital that prisoners do not have the chance to compare notes or chat with anybody apart from interrogation staff. This process weeds out those with nothing to give, leaving a hard core of interesting people to undergo actual interrogation.

Interrogation must start immediately, and on the battlefield may include measures designed to disorientate and pressurise prisoners to extend the ‘shock of capture’ period. Blindfolding and sensory deprivation through the playing of white noise, isolation, no human contact except during interrogation sessions, and the controlled use of so-called stress positions are examples of such measures.

Stress positions have been defined by some human rights organisations as being torture, and although banned for example in Northern Ireland, are still used in British Army training exercises to teach troops how to resist interrogation. A typical regime during a 24 hour period of interrogation would be for prisoners to be kept between interrogation sessions blindfolded and listening to white noise, with silent guards making them stand up, sit down, and go into stress positions every twenty minutes. Sitting cross-legged with hands on head is one stress position, which might be alternated with standing with hands outstretched leaning against a wall. These positions are uncomfortable enough to be stressful, but when strictly controlled to ensure that blood circulation is maintained, have no lasting physical effects.

The CIA’s so-called “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual, which dates from 1963 and was published after a Freedom of Information Act law suit in 1997, states that pain inflicted on a person from outside himself may actually focus or intensify his will to resist, and that a far more effective use of pain is that which the prisoner seems to inflict upon himself – for example by being told to stand at attention for long periods. This avoids contests between torturer and prisoner. It also says that threats of violence by interrogators are seen as being more effective than actual violence. The CIA manual says that actual torture is quite likely to produce false confessions, as a means of escaping from distress, which have to be investigated. The prisoner can use this time to think up new, more complex “admissions” that take still longer to disprove. Controversially, the manual also discusses the use of drugs and hypnosis.

Interrogation centres are highly controlled environments, in which prisoners can be totally isolated, unaware of the passage of time or the date, with their only human contacts taking place during interrogation sessions. Recordings of harsh interrogations may be played, and subtle changes of temperature used to trick prisoners into feeling frightened. Interrogations are usually video’d and observed by senior interrogators in a television style control room, where tactics can be discussed, and communicated to the interrogator using a concealed earpiece. Prisoners may be interrogated while remaining blindfolded, or the blindfold might be removed.

Initially interrogators try to determine which approach of a number of well-practised approaches will work best for each prisoner. There are twelve of these: varying from the well-known good cop/bad cop routine, to the grinding boredom of totally silent interrogations, to more sophisticated procedures targeting the egos of prisoners. With extrovert, intelligent anxious prisoners, total silence can create unbearable tensions in which they can literally explode with information. Massaging the ego, or conversely attacking a prisoner’s self-worth, can also produce reactions if targeted at the right people. When interrogators can identify groups of prisoners, they will persuade one that the others have told them everything, then use every snippet of information to turn the group against each other.

All prisoners have a dossier, which is updated after each interrogation session, and with other information being compiled by other investigators. Its value lies in persuading the prisoner that there are no secrets, so he or she might just as well save themselves further grief and tell all; but also in linking information to aid interrogators, and implicate other prisoners.

But the most important part of all interrogations is checking the accuracy of the information as the interrogation process proceeds. Specific information must be obtained, which can then be checked. But care must also be taken; a well trained, determined prisoner will ensure that all checkable information is accurate, and will concentrate on persuading his captors to take action on less verifiable information, with the intention either of being labelled a person of no interest – a so-called “grey man”, or of luring troops into a minefield, ambush or other area of danger. Interrogation is a serious game. The war continues, even after capture.

– article by Hugh McManners commissioned and published by GE Fabbri in 2004

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