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Beyond Torture: The New Science of Interrogating Terrorists

06_12_Interrogation_01
06/19/15
In the Magazine
A man weeps as he is questioned by soldiers with the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command, with the help of advisors from the U.S. Army and Marines, after being taken into custody with fraudulent identification papers July 28, 2005 in Fallujah, Iraq. The man was later turned over to U.S. Marines for further interrogation. Experts say the U.S. needs to rethink how its interrogators are trained. Scott Olson/Getty

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In the fall of 2003, Colonel Steven Kleinman, a veteran Air Force interrogator, walked into a room at a classified location near Baghdad. It was dark and the walls were painted black, he recalls. A Marine and an interpreter sat side by side in chairs. In front of them knelt an Iraqi man squinting into a spotlight. The Marine was asking the Iraqi questions, and each time he answered, the interrogator slapped him hard and called him a liar. Shocked, Kleinman pulled the Marine out of the room and asked what he was doing. “Sir,” he responded, “that’s the only way to get these people to talk. That field manual shit isn’t going to work here.”

That “field manual shit” is the guidebook for military interrogators listing techniques they’re authorized to use in questioning detainees. What’s known as the Army Field Manual was created in 1945 and is now in its third edition; it plays a pivotal role in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Soon after Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office in 2009, he issued an executive order that required all U.S. government interrogators to abide by the manual, which prohibits waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA after 9/11. The agency had already stopped using those methods due to their controversial nature, but Obama formally ended the program, which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.”

Torture still has its champions, however, and executive orders can easily be revoked. To prevent future administrations from returning to harsh measures, Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain are now proposing legislation that would establish the field manual as the law of the land. The bill will likely receive a vote in the next week and is expected to pass.

Yet the manual is largely useless, according to Kleinman and two other experts involved with the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), a body set up by Obama to question terrorism suspects and sponsor related research. The reason, they say, is because it’s unscientific. As new legislation works its way through the congressional pipeline, Kleinman and other HIG researchers say the U.S. needs to rethink how interrogators are trained—based on a bevy of recent empirical research. “The time is ripe for the Army Field Manual to be redesigned,” says Melissa Russano, a professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, who has contributed to various HIG-funded projects. “The costs of not doing so are incredibly high.”

Flatter the Detainee

This isn’t the first time Kleinman has tried to change American interrogation protocols. More than a decade ago, as the Iraqi insurgency grew, and the Pentagon pushed for new intelligence, he watched as American interrogators—like that Marine in Iraq—turned to brutal and humiliating measures. The reason, Kleinman believes, is because many of the methods in the Army Field Manual didn’t work. When a scandal emerged about the treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq, the Bush administration decided to revise the manual for the first time in decades. The new version placed restrictions on abuse, but “there was no effort to objectively test the efficacy of the approaches,” Kleinman says. The former Air Force interrogator testified before Congress in 2007, insisting the manual be replaced. But his proposals were ignored.

Since the creation of HIG in 2009, research on interrogation has grown steadily. One paper, a controversial 2010 survey Kleinman wrote along with Susan Brandon, now the HIG’s chief research scientist, analyzed the efficacy of the manual’s techniques. But the unclassified, 100-page document was never published, Kleinman says, because its conclusions could have jeopardized the HIG’s relationship with the military.

Now, however, with McCain and Feinstein pushing for new legislation, Kleinman, Brandon and their co-authors, Sujeeta Bhatt and Brandi Justice, agreed to let Newsweek review the survey, which detailed how the majority of the manual’s techniques are flawed. One involves belittling prisoners. Another recommends asking ominous questions, such as: “You know what can happen to you here?” Techniques like these “are very ineffective,” says Mark Fallon, a former federal agent and chair of the HIG’s Research Committee. These methods, along with other stress-inducing techniques, can impair memory and contaminate intelligence, according to Kleinman’s survey. “I don’t want to force people to tell me things,” he says, “because then they will tell me things they don’t even know.”

Some of the manual’s methods seem to work well, namely flattering a detainee, asking direct questions and developing a rapport with a prisoner. Russano says recent research indicates that showing empathy, respect and humanity help elicit reliable information. In one study, she and her colleagues interviewed more than 40 experienced interrogators to establish which techniques they found most effective. A majority cited building rapport. Though popular television shows, such as 24, and movies, such as Zero Dark Thirty, portray torture and other coercive measures as effective, “interrogation is not as Hollywood makes it to be,” says Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now runs a private intelligence firm.  

Soufan witnessed this firsthand while interrogating the CIA’s high-value detainee, Abu Zubaydah, at a secret prison in Thailand in 2002. As Newsweek previously reported, Zubaydah had been shot multiple times during his capture and was in bad shape. Soufan and his colleague, Steve Gaudin, tended to his wounds, gained his trust and got him talking. Among other crucial information, Zubaydah told them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks—something previously unknown. The CIA later employed brutal tactics such as waterboarding, in an effort to get Zubaydah to divulge more. But the agency’s harsh measures failed to gain useful intelligence, according to the Senate report.

One of Soufan’s most effective tactics was to convince a detainee he knew more than he really did. In Zubaydah’s case, the detainee was initially pretending his name was “Daoud.” But Soufan had spent time going over the FBI’s intel files; he surprised Zubaydah by calling him “Hani,” a nickname used by his mother. A similar technique was pioneered by Hanns Scharff, a legendary German interrogator during World War II. Scharff subtly convinced prisoners that he knew everything about them; the prisoners, in turn, would feel there was no point in hiding information. In a new study shared with Newsweek, Pär-Anders Granhag, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and his colleagues tried out Scharff’s method by interviewing volunteers suspected of a mock crime. The study found that the suspects were less likely to withhold information they believed the interrogator already had.

Sometimes, however, using evidence in that way can backfire. The field manual, for instance, recommends a technique that’s broadly similar to the Scharff method but inferior in key respects, says Granhag. In the manual’s version, called “We Know All,” an interrogator is supposed to use evidence aggressively, providing answers if a detainee hesitates or refuses to reply. This approach bears some resemblance to the Reid Technique, a method routinely used by police departments in the U.S. and Canada. It involves presenting suspects with such overwhelming evidence that they feel forced to admit guilt. Yet research by Russano and others suggests this approach, if taken too far, can pressure innocent people into giving false confessions. Subtlety, Soufan says, is key. “It’s not like ‘I know you have WMD, and tell me where they are!’”

Granhag agrees: “For Scharff, information should be evoked, never demanded.”

A Back Door to Torture

Many interrogators say training needs to put more emphasis on rapport-building techniques and continue to reject torture. But Fallon says the current version of the Army Field Manual still offers a back door to some of the brutal tactics authorized after 9/11. As the CIA applied its enhanced techniques at secret prisons around the world, the Pentagon developed a parallel set of harsh measures for use at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. Although the current manual bans some harsh tactics such as the use of attack dogs, others might still be permissible.

At issue is a special appendix at the end of the manual, laying out a “restricted interrogation technique” called “Separation.” This involves placing a prisoner in isolation for 30 days or more, and it can be used only on “unlawful enemy combatants” not protected by the Geneva Conventions, a set of international agreements that lay down standards for the humane treatment of prisoners. The goal of this method is to decrease the “detainee’s resistance to interrogation” and to prolong the “shock of capture.” If detainees cannot be physically isolated in cells, interrogators are permitted to apply goggles and earmuffs; and captives must be allowed a minimum of four hours sleep every 24 hours.

Kleinman and Fallon think this technique could be interpreted to permit cruel methods, such as prolonged solitary confinement and sleep and sensory deprivation. Kleinman’s 2010 survey lists a myriad of mental and physical problems caused by solitary confinement, such as depression, psychosis and impaired memory. The United Nations echoed those concerns in a recent report, which said the appendix could facilitate cruel treatment or even torture. In 2010, Fallon, Kleinman and others penned a joint letter to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, criticizing the separation tactic. They say they never received a reply. (Gates tells Newsweek he does not recall receiving the letter.) In a statement, a spokesman for the Defense Department said that by law, “no person in DoD custody or control shall be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Not all interrogators think the appendix, or the manual for that matter, needs to be changed. Mike Nemerouf, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, says the authorized list of tactics “does a great job of identifying primary motivators for detainees.” He also defended the appendix, saying separation “creates an atmosphere that is more conducive to collecting accurate and complete intelligence information” and contains numerous safeguards to rule out abuse. Charles Mink, a former U.S. Army interrogator, believes the appendix should be removed, but otherwise supports the manual. “Its contribution is that it bans abuse,” he says. “It needs to be legislation before the American people inaugurate their next president.”

The latter point is something with which both Fallon and Kleinman agree. They firmly support the bill, which orders a periodic review of the field manual. “Passing strongly worded legislation that would stand as a bulwark against torture,” Kleinman says, “is the single most important step we must take.”

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