The art of interrogation

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."

In other words, the successful interrogator in certain situations must spare the red-hot poker and spoil the suspect -- or at least pretend to. "What are the qualities that make a good interrogator?" Walters asks. "Tons of patience. The ability to set aside his own personality and his own value systems and his own beliefs, and to assume the personality of the person he's interrogating. They've got to be good communicators and great listeners."

Seeking a common bond

No one interviewed for this story doubts that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will be a tough nut to crack. So how best to crack him? A poll taken by the Christian Science Monitor shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks found that about one-third of Americans would support U.S.-government torture of terrorism suspects. A recent Wall Street Journal story on the subject of what methods may be used on Mohammed quoted a U.S. official as saying, "You're just limited by your imagination," while another suggested that "a little bit of smacky-face" could do the trick.

Bad idea, according to Christopher Dillingham, a former police vice-squad officer and adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida. He has published numerous articles in law enforcement journals on interviewing protocol and techniques and how to detect deception by criminal suspects.

"Whatever harm is done in the beginning to this person could very well defeat our purposes," Dillingham says. "If you were this suspect and suppose you were tortured for hours, days, weeks on end, would you be inclined to see your next interrogator as a fellow human being? Probably it would strengthen your resolve" not to cooperate.

Establishing a common bond of humanity can be crucial in getting a suspect to open up, Dillingham says. It may be over something trivial -- food, sports, tastes in romantic partners -- or something of deeper import, like the suspect's political worldview. "If I found out somebody liked blonds, I would get a poster of a blond to put up on my office wall," Dillingham says.

Walters, a former FBI civilian employee and corporate investigator, recalls the case of a suspected pedophile who "fought all the way to the jail." Walters arrived there just as dinner was being served: navy beans and corn bread. Soon, Walters says, he and the man were jawin' about down-home cooking. "We talked beans, we talked pot roast, we talked about when to put the taters in. In an hour and a half I had a confession. The guy [got] 64 years for molesting children."

As an interrogator, Walters says, you must get to know your man (or woman). If he smokes, let him have a cigarette. On your way home, stop by and ask the suspect if he's OK. By and by, the suspect may feel "like it was almost his duty to talk to the interviewer," Walters says. "It's like a custom-tailored suit just for this guy. It's not a one-size-fits-all. You've got to get inside this guy's thinking. Make it personal for him."

Still, pot roast is one thing. Jihad is another.

In Mohammed's case, Dillingham acknowledges, "we're dealing with a very different type of situation than a law enforcement [agent] would normally encounter." The Ur-text in these matters, Dillingham says, is "Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in Our Time," by psychiatrist Frederick J. Hacker. In his 1976 book, Hacker divided terrorists into three general categories: criminals, who are primarily motivated by financial or some other form of personal gain; crazies, pathological types whose actions are fundamentally irrational (and thus sometimes dangerously unpredictable); and crusaders, stirred by passionate, nearly unshakable ideological convictions.

Crusaders, like Mohammed, may not be moved by promises of better treatment if they cooperate, or by threats of reprisals against comrades or even family members. But they can be susceptible to intellectual flattery, Dillingham says. "You'll find oftentimes that crusaders want to speak about their cause, and particularly when you're dealing with somebody in an upper-level hierarchy, as this person [Mohammed] is, you'll find strong ego involvement and there's a tendency to boast and to brag," he says.

Dillingham classifies the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, as another crusader, whose rambling, self-important, techno-phobic missives furnished investigators with clues to his motives and actions.

"Once people begin to speak, we're all rather self-absorbed, we like to let people into our own skulls, we like people to think that we're interesting," Dillingham says. "I suspect with Al Qaeda it's pretty much going to be the same thing. They want their message to get out."

Dillingham thinks that Mohammed's interrogators should play to his ego: Get him to talk about his childhood, the torments he suffered growing up in the Middle East, why he wants the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, what he hopes to accomplish. "When you tell your deepest darkest secrets," Dillingham says, "you tell them to one person at a time."

Isolating the suspect

White House attorneys have indicated that the U.S., in dealing with foreign terror suspects, will respect the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which forbids inflicting "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" during interrogations.

That still leaves the door open to a variety of tactics, including: isolating the suspect; disorienting him about his physical location or the time of day; covering his head with a hood; lying to him; withholding medical attention; administering psychotropic drugs; and forcing him to lie or sit in an uncomfortable position for hours at a time.

"They're all variants on the theme," says Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology and chairman of legal studies at Williams College who conducts research on the psychology of confessions in criminal cases. "They all share basically a multi-step process whereby you remove a suspect and isolate that suspect. Then you break the suspect down into a state of despair such that the suspect's denials don't produce an escape from this state of affairs. Then you offer the suspect some way out.... They tap into some very basic psychology about reward and punishment."

Yet these methods, too, can backfire.

"One of the reasons we're so strict about noncoercive interrogation techniques in criminal courts is that in most cases those techniques produce false confessions," says Cynthia Orr, a Texas attorney who is co-chairwoman of the death penalty committee of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Tell that to Gary Gauger. On the day in April 1993 that Gauger allegedly "confessed" to slitting his parents' throats, the sheriff's deputies who questioned him pulled a classic good cop-bad cop routine, says the Illinois organic farmer.

Over the course of a grueling 18-hour interrogation, Gauger says, he was deprived of sleep, stripped naked, made to put on a prison uniform and forbidden to leave, although he hadn't yet been charged with any crime. He says he also was told that a bloody knife had been found in his pocket and that the district attorney was already out in the hall clamoring for the death penalty.

Early the next morning, Gauger says, exhausted and disoriented, he yielded to the cops' suggestion that he sketch out a hypothetical scenario about how he might have killed his parents if he actually had been the murderer. That scenario later was used to convict Gauger of the double homicide and send him to death row.

"You have to realize, I was in a very vulnerable state," Gauger says, recalling the incident in a recent telephone interview. "My parents have been murdered, I'm looking to the police to help solve this crime."

Three and a half years into Gauger's prison term, an Illinois appellate court threw out the confession, ruling that he had been detained without probable cause. Meanwhile, a separate federal investigation had identified the real killers, motorcycle gang members who'd come to rob the family farm, then later bragged about their misdeeds on tape to an informant.

Although Gauger insists he's no expert on the centuries-old art of interrogation, he has come to realize "how prevalent and systemic" is the practice of using torture to force suspects into making false admissions. And he recoils from the prospect of using such methods on any human being -- including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

"They say it's OK if they put a hood on his head, they put him in a very uncomfortable place and they starve him, and that's OK as long as they don't beat him. It's horrible, it's barbaric," Gauger says. "The same people that want the death penalty want to go over and bomb Iraq. Here you've got the mullahs telling these guys we're devils, and then you've got us treating them like devils. We're just playing into the mullahs' hands if you don't treat them with a little compassion."

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