When the FBI went looking for the best way to pry information from terrorists, they discovered it in the most unlikely of places: an almost-forgotten interrogator for Nazi Germany.
Hanns Scharff was a master manipulator, but not in the stereotypical Gestapo-like ways that usually come to mind. His tools were kindness, respect, empathy and guile.
He told meandering stories, took detainees on long strolls in the countryside and left them alone in his office to read the U.S. military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. He provided hard-to-find cigarettes and even let one captured U.S. pilot take a short flight in a German fighter plane.
But all the while, without them even knowing, he was swiping their secrets.
In recent years, Scharff’s technique has become the intense focus of research funded by the U.S. government through the FBI-led High-Value Interrogation Group, a task force of agents, analysts and intelligence community officers who question suspected terrorists and other key detainees.
Since being established by President Obama in 2009 after the furor over the U.S. government’s use of torture and “enhanced interrogation” techniques on alleged terrorists, the unit has spent at least $10 million researching the most effective ways to elicit information from tough-to-crack suspects, injecting science into the art of interrogation.
The work has verified what Scharff, an art student who never planned to be a soldier, discovered more than seven decades ago: building a rapport with your subjects and challenging their preconceived notions gets you more reliable information than torture or handling them roughly.
“Scharff happened upon some of the strategies that are really effective, and we are beginning to understand why they are effective and how effective they can be,” said Christian Meissner, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who spent the past five years conducting and managing research for the interrogation group. “He really hit on strategies and techniques that work, and we now know why they work. There is a bit of an irony, I know, that we are learning this from an interrogator for the Nazis.”
That Scharff became one of the world’s most successful interrogators came about somewhat by accident.
Raised to take over his well-to-do family’s textile business, Scharff was working in South Africa in the 1930s as a director of a German manufacturing conglomerate. When World War II broke out in 1939, he and his wife and children were vacationing in Germany, and he was pressed into military service. A fluent English speaker, he was assigned to work as an interpreter, and then interrogator, for the German air force, the Luftwaffe.
Early in his service, Scharff told a biographer, he witnessed a particularly brutal interrogation in which a German officer “drove a totally frightened POW into the corner of the the room by his mad roaring.” After that, Scharff said, he knew how he would do the job.
“You have one overwhelming impression: should you ever come into the position where you would interview a POW yourself, you should do it in a calm and friendly way. Not to bully, threaten or shout,” he told Raymond F. Toliver, who was a U.S. army pilot in World War II and wrote Scharff’s biography, “The Interrogator.”
The softer approach turned out to be very effective. During his tenure, he interviewed more than 500 U.S. and allied pilots, most of them fighter jockeys, all trained to give up nothing beyond their name, rank and serial number. The German later wrote that he successfully elicited useful information from all but about 20 of them.
After the war, in a sign of the respect U.S. military officials had for Scharff’s methods, the interrogator was invited to give lectures at the Pentagon and helped develop survival techniques for U.S. Air Force pilots.
He eventually immigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles where he became a commercially successful artist specializing in mosaic work. He crafted fountain mosaics for the Los Angeles Civic Center and the floor of the state Capitol in Sacramento.
He died in 1992, well before the U.S. war on terror commenced. But his methods began getting a second look amid the fierce national debate over the harsh interrogation tactics used by the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. President Obama and others have condemned some of those methods as torture.
Former CIA officials have defended the rough techniques as useful, but a 2014 Senate report found that the agency’s use of torture failed to stop any imminent plots.
Sometimes, it even backfired, the report concluded. At least one suspect “sang like a tweetie bird,” according to a CIA official quoted in the report, before he was tortured. But after being subjected to harsh interrogation, he provided no other useful information, according to the report.
Amid the debate, the FBI-led interrogation unit began funding research to scientifically analyze various interrogation practices. It plans to soon release a report detailing best practices.
Though Scharff’s techniques had been long known to U.S. officials, the research confirmed for the first time that it actually works better.
Par Anders Granhag, a professor of psychology at the University of Gothenburg who is considered the leading authority on Scharff, says the interrogator’s method is based on doing extensive homework and then manipulating captives’ assumptions, circumventing their counter-interrogation training.
For example, Scharff built extensive dossiers of U.S. aviators’ lives and units, using U.S. newspaper clippings, previous interrogations and radio logs. He discovered that hidden in pilots’ clothing were markings that could identify their fighter and bomber groups, Scharff wrote in a 1950 Argosy magazine essay titled “Without Torture.”
Those scraps of information enabled Scharff to spin convincing yarns about a captured pilot’s commanders, their wives, base high jinks and fellow fliers. Scharff made it appear that he already knew intimate details about their unit even when they had refused to talk.
As Scharff smiled and plied his prisoners with tea and coffee – surprising pilots who had expected to be tortured or seduced by female spies – he subtly injected leading questions or made outlandish statements that compelled his American captives to correct him.
For example, Scharff wrote, German commanders at one point wanted to know why some American pilots used tracer rounds with a distinctive white flash while others were red. Scharff suggested to a pilot that it appeared American industry must have run out of the chemicals necessary for the red tracer bullets.
No, the pilot responded, refuting any suggestion of a shortage. The white tracers simply signaled that planes were running out of ammo, Scharff told Toliver, a piece of information that would prove very helpful to German fighter pilots.
Even after getting a critical detail, Scharff kept chatting with prisoners, swapping stories that pilots constantly sought to one-up. The information went right into his files, he wrote, providing him loads of context to help him interrogate the next flier.
“He was very thoughtful,” said Granhag, “and he knew that the prisoners were trying to figure out what he was after. He realized they would likely talk more if they thought they were giving him information he already had. He played off their expectations.”
In his lab, Granhag determined that such techniques were far more effective in eliciting truthful information from subjects than a more direct and confrontational approach.
In one of his experiments, lab participants were given details about a fictional plot to bomb a shopping center. They were told that they would be paid based on how well they were able to appear to cooperate with their make-believe interrogators without providing too much information, just as if they were terrorists trying to provide just enough information to con the police.
The researcher determined that interviewers wielding Scharff’s techniques elicited more information from participants than those using the other approach. In addition to providing more information than those subjected to the direct and more confrontational method, those interviewed using Scharff’s technique wrongly believed they had revealed far less information than they actually had.
For obvious ethical reasons, Granhag and other researchers have not been able to test whether Scharff’s method works better than actual torture, but they say research suggests it does.
“Take your moral compass and heart out of it, and just look at the results,” said Steven Kleinman, a former military intelligence officer who was a founding member of a committee that advises the interrogation group on its research. “The closer you adhere to the most exacting standards of human rights and treatment of prisoners -- what Scharff did -- you will be more effective. Here is a guy who was caught up in a horrible situation he couldn’t walk away from, and his moral standards still allowed him to be successful, perhaps among the most successful interrogators in history.”