The subtleties of interrogation nothing like 24

posted at 3:50 pm on January 18, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

Marc Thiessen dispels the notion that actual intelligence experts conduct interrogations of terrorists in any fashion like the popular series 24 — and explains that most people don’t really know what interrogation does.  It does not produce the information that discloses the ticking time bomb.  Rather, it allows our agents to know when a subject has truly decided to become cooperative — and when to start a much less aggressive de-briefing session.  In neither case do agents go Jack Bauer on a subject, despite the fantasies of war critics:

They began by clarifying precisely how the program actually worked. While 24 depicts violent scenes where interrogators inflict severe pain to get time-sensitive intelligence on terrorist dangers, in the real world, they told me, this is not how interrogations take place.

They explained, for example, that there is a difference between “interrogation”  and “debriefing.”  Interrogation is not how we got information from the terrorists; it is the process by which we overcome the terrorists’ resistance and secure their cooperation — sometimes with the help of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Once the terrorist agreed to cooperate, I was told, the interrogation stopped and “de-briefing” began, as the terrorists were questioned by CIA analysts, using non-aggressive techniques to extract information that could help disrupt attacks.

The interrogation process was usually brief, they said. According to declassified documents, on average “the actual use of interrogation techniques covers a period of three to seven days, but can vary upwards to 15 days based on the resilience” of the terrorist in custody.

In at least one case, the interrogators were thanked for their efforts:

Indeed, the first terrorist to be subjected to enhanced techniques, Zubaydah, told his interrogators something stunning. According to the Justice Department memos released by the Obama administration, Zubaydah explained that “brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.” In other words, the terrorists are called by their religious ideology to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know.

Several senior officials told me that, after undergoing waterboarding, Zubaydah actually thanked his interrogators and said, “You must do this for all the brothers.” The enhanced interrogation techniques were a relief for Zubaydah, they said, because they lifted a moral burden from his shoulders — the responsibility to continue resisting.

Whether or not one agrees with waterboarding, I think we can all agree that letting terrorists captured by intel agents to “lawyer up” prior to interrogation and debriefing will not meet that threshold by which terrorists feel free to share information.

The poor understanding of American interrogation techniques has generated a lot of misinformation about the process.  For instance, as people assume the US uses torture in its interrogations and that rogue intel agents can free-lance their techniques, people assume that the information retrieved is faulty and unreliable.  But as Thiessen explains, that confuses interrogation with debriefing.  The point of interrogation is to confirm cooperation first:

Critics have charged that enhanced interrogation techniques are not effective because those undergoing them will say anything to get them to stop. Soufan, the FBI agent and CIA critic, has written: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. . . . That means the information you’re getting is useless.”

What this statement reveals is that Soufan knows nothing about how the CIA actually employed enhanced interrogation techniques. In an interview for my book, former national-security adviser Steve Hadley explained to me, “The interrogation techniques were not to elicit information. So the whole argument that people tell you lies under torture misses the point.” Hadley said the purpose of the techniques was to “bring them to the point where they are willing to cooperate, and once they are willing to cooperate, then the techniques stop and you do all the things the FBI agents say you ought to do to build trust and all the rest.”

Former CIA director Mike Hayden explained to me that, as enhanced techniques are applied, CIA interrogators like Harry would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already know the answers — allowing them to judge whether the detainees were being truthful and determine when the terrorists had reached a level of compliance. Hayden said, “They are designed to create a state of cooperation, not to get specific truthful answers to a specific question.”

And one way of determining that reliability has already been compromised, as Thiessen explains:

Another reason the program was so effective, Harry and Sam explained, was that because the terrorists were in a secure location, CIA officials could also expose sensitive information to them — asking them to explain the meaning of materials captured in terrorist raids, and to indentify phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and voices in recordings of intercepted communications. This could never be done if the terrorists were being held in a facility where they had regular contact with the outside world. The danger of this information getting out would have been far too great.

Harry and Sam told me that the agency believed without the program the terrorists would have succeeded in striking our country again.

With the current administration sending KSM and others who have seen this information into criminal court, how many of these intelligence officers will ever be comfortable with that process in the future?  And how much can KSM expose while in open court?

Tomorrow, I will interview Marc and ask these questions and many more on The Ed Morrissey Show as we discuss his book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.  Be sure to join us.


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Comments

Part of the Muslim morning prayer ritual involves washing out the nostrils because they believe Satan resides there while they sleep.

I would think waterboarding would help to flush Satan from the nose and should be appreciated.

Disturb the Universe on January 18, 2010 at 3:54 PM

Eric Holder disagrees. In the US we now have decades of experience seeing Mirandized defendants voluntarily disclose abundant information implicating themselves and their accomplices. Holder is confident that this same stellar record of success will extend to the domain of international agents of man-caused disasters.

jwolf on January 18, 2010 at 3:55 PM

How many more days does the blessed Caliph have in office?

Will this country survive the terror attack that might come between now and noon January 20, 2013 or 2017?

The two questions that need to be answered.

PappyD61 on January 18, 2010 at 3:58 PM

Part of the Muslim morning prayer ritual involves washing out the nostrils because they believe Satan resides there while they sleep.

I would think waterboarding would help to flush Satan from the nose and should be appreciated.

Disturb the Universe on January 18, 2010 at 3:54 PM

Excellent
+ 786!

macncheez on January 18, 2010 at 4:00 PM

When the subject thanks you for your technique, you are doing it wrong.

Vashta.Nerada on January 18, 2010 at 4:01 PM

According to the Justice Department memos released by the Obama administration, Zubaydah explained that “brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.” In other words, the terrorists are called by their religious ideology to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know.

Will someone translate this to boo-boo language and explain it to Hussain , Pelosi and Holder ?

macncheez on January 18, 2010 at 4:04 PM

We were giving them the moral cover they needed to spill their guts. Obooba wants them mirandized to shut them up.

This is no more accidental than anything else he’s doing that harms our country.

If his crimes were in fact blunders, they’d accrue to our favor occasionally. None have.

Akzed on January 18, 2010 at 4:05 PM

Slightly OT but those 5 Jihadists who went to Pakistan to fight US troops are complaining that they are being tortured by the Pakistanis. The reaction on local talk radio wasn’t exactly full of outrage or demands that “we do something about it.”

highhopes on January 18, 2010 at 4:07 PM

It always pisses me off when lefties and wrong thinking conservatives claim torture or enhanced interrogation is useless because people will say anything. Well, they will say anything when you treat them with kid gloves, too. The goal is to get information and then verify and cross check it with other intel.

And I disagree — enhanced interrogation techniques are used to elicit information, too, – not just cooperation.

These one-but-not-the-other-arguments are stupid. You do whatever works at the time.

Blake on January 18, 2010 at 4:08 PM

President Obama, “You have the right to remain silent”.

(As I’m reading this on NRO, I’m composing a ‘tip’ to send to HotAir. After hitting ‘submit’ I return to HotAir to see that Ed has already posted it. MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH!)

Skandia Recluse on January 18, 2010 at 4:10 PM

Heh.

I just realized that LGF was taken off your ‘Lefty Channels’. It’s about time you guys stopped providing back links to their joke of a site.

You-Eh-Vee on January 18, 2010 at 4:10 PM

If [Obama’s] crimes were in fact blunders, they’d accrue to our favor occasionally. None have.

Akzed on January 18, 2010 at 4:05 PM

Well said. And although OT the same applies to election problems and “mistakes.” They are anything but random.

jwolf on January 18, 2010 at 4:11 PM

Eric Holder disagrees. In the US we now have decades of experience seeing Mirandized defendants voluntarily disclose abundant information implicating themselves and their accomplices often in the form of, FU, PIGS! I AIN’T TELLING YOU SH*TE! DUMBAZZ WHITE HONKY MFERS. Holder is confident that this same stellar record of success will extend to the domain of international agents of man-caused disasters.

jwolf on January 18, 2010 at 3:55 PM

FIFY

Blake on January 18, 2010 at 4:11 PM

Heh.

I just realized that LGF was taken off your ‘Lefty Channels’. It’s about time you guys stopped providing back links to their joke of a site.

You-Eh-Vee on January 18, 2010 at 4:10 PM

Great!

Blake on January 18, 2010 at 4:13 PM

When the subject thanks you for your technique, you are doing it wrong.

Vashta.Nerada on January 18, 2010 at 4:01 PM

It’s also not good when you’re interogating a terrorist, you get in his have, scream: “WHO DO YOU WORK FOR-R-R-R-R-R-R-R?!” and he takes a sip of his drink.

Even worse, when you say: “Dammit,” he chugs.

ScottMcC on January 18, 2010 at 4:15 PM

I personally am VERY disturbed by the quote:
“(interrogation) allows our agents to know when a subject has truly decided to become cooperative….”

Unfortunately, the CIA lost 7 killed in Pakistan a few weeks ago – because, for whatever reason, they allowed themselves to believe a subject had become truly cooperative. Their misperception cost them their lives.

Although something of an oxymoron, I was an intelligence officer in Vietnam. While a Viet Cong or NVA might have “rallied” to our side, we nevertheless insisted that every defector ‘prove’ himself every waking moment of every single day.

Bluntly put, why completely trust a rallier who can ‘rally’ once again (back to those who sent him?)

alwyr on January 18, 2010 at 4:18 PM

How about this: Put your subject into a comma. Then wake him up and make him think it is years in the future and the terror event already happened. Then get him to brag about HOW it happened and you’ll know the details of the plot.

Hey, it always worked in the “Mission Impossible” tv series.

kurtzz3 on January 18, 2010 at 4:19 PM

Bluntly put, why completely trust a rallier who can ‘rally’ once again (back to those who sent him?)

alwyr on January 18, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Two points on this. One, I belive the guy in Pakistan was being handled by the Jordanians. So their double-checking may have been a bit lax.

Two, the article makes clear that information provided by the terrorists was compared to other sources of intelligence, including other detainees, for verification. If the guy in Pakistan had known that OTHER Al Qaeda operatives thought he was going rogue, he might not have turned double-agent.

hawksruleva on January 18, 2010 at 4:30 PM

How about this: Put your subject into a comma. .

kurtzz3 on January 18, 2010 at 4:19 PM

Well, ok, but commas are pretty, well, small ;-)

I loved that show. I wonder if that method is legal in this kid-glove era?

hawksruleva on January 18, 2010 at 4:31 PM

The only subtleties needed are an incline board, a gallon of jet fuel and a lit cigar.

If it could be done at the end of a plank up 1200 feet in the air, so much the better.

They’ll talk.

Bruno Strozek on January 18, 2010 at 4:37 PM

Fascinating read – thanks Ed!

Ann on January 18, 2010 at 5:06 PM

With the current administration sending KSM and others who have seen this information into criminal court, how many of these intelligence officers will ever be comfortable with that process in the future?

Nope! As long as Obama stands with his muslim brothers, this nation is always going to be under great threat. Now which is the greater threat? Obama, or his muslim brothers?

capejasmine on January 18, 2010 at 5:09 PM

I wonder what depth of information of any real value any of these fellows have. The idea of finding the right Muslim to ask the right question that will lead to some Boss Muslim that may put an end to hostilities is wrong. This is driven by history and ideology, not the “twisted” whim of a handful of mad individuals. Yet, that is how it is being pursued so failure should be expected regularly and predictably.

[email protected] on January 18, 2010 at 5:40 PM

The critics are the same libtards who write the fictional interrogation scenes that are oh so tough. The critics need to take the red pill and get real.

Mojave Mark on January 18, 2010 at 5:56 PM

Exactly! The BS about ‘they’ll tell you what you want to hear’ comes from people who don’t know a damned thing about “interrogation vs debriefs”.

The hardest part was just after 9/11. Knowing NOTHING, it’s hard to get those first RELIABLE pieces of info. Once you have those, from multiple sources, then and only then can you start getting anywhere.

GarandFan on January 18, 2010 at 6:09 PM

As a trained and experienced interrogator, I can attest to most Americans not having a clue as to how it is done, and what methods are most effective for various categories of prisoners/detainees/defectors.

One size does not fit all.

That said, there are indeed times when the “mean” has to come down hard and fast.

Once a bad guy gets to lawyer up…there is no interrogation, just “interviews” wherein the subject can talk or refuse to talk with no ill effects forthcoming.

Hell of a way to run a war…letting the bad guys lawyer up.

coldwarrior on January 18, 2010 at 6:12 PM

Great post — but not new to anyone who paid attention or bothered to look or listen to anyone experienced in interrogation techniques.

That is one of the things that bothered me the most about the whole argument, the system is designed to build to cooperation and even lies can lead to a complete picture.

None of this is done in isolation nor is it done by amateurs or Jack Bauers.

LifeTrek on January 18, 2010 at 6:52 PM

You will cooperate with the State for the good of the State and your own survival. You will confess to the crimes of which you have been accused. You will be released and returned to Society a productive citizen if you cooperate.

Resistance will be punished. Cooperation will be rewarded.

Babylon 5, good depiction of interrogation.

Scopper on January 18, 2010 at 7:19 PM

Squeak styrofoam packing blocks over glass… within five minutes most people will crack, gibbering for silence.

You need to use more subtle nerve graters to rasp the terrorist’s cheese.

But, if it requires pouring water up their homicidal noses, let the spigots (of rational survival) flow.

And worse if they threaten worse.

profitsbeard on January 19, 2010 at 11:37 AM

The idea of finding the right Muslim to ask the right question that will lead to some Boss Muslim that may put an end to hostilities is wrong. This is driven by history and ideology, not the “twisted” whim of a handful of mad individuals. Yet, that is how it is being pursued so failure should be expected regularly and predictably.

[email protected] on January 18, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Overall there is an ideology behind this, yes, but many of these individuals will be only partial subscribers to that ideology. Also interrogation will not end the ideological conflict but it might yield information that could prevent a specific attack or lead to the capture or killing of specific enemy persons.

Islam is not only evil but also false. This must create conflict in the mind of any Muslim who begins to think rationally. A simple example: if (as some Muslims claim) the 2001 Sept 11th attacks were an expression of God’s righteous displeasure towards the infidels then what does the earthquake in Iran, or the destruction wreaked in Iraq, or the impoverished wretched state of Islamic nations in general tell of God’s attitude towards Muslims? Islam teaches Muslims that they are superior to all others, yet any honest enquirer can hardly fail to notice that Islamic societies amongst the most ignorant, impoverished, unpleasant places on the planet? Why did the perfect final revelation bring forth a worse fruit than the ‘corrupted’ revelations that it supposedly came to correct?

The conflict created in the minds of the Muslims means they can never truly be sure that they are, in fact, on the right side. Such conflicted minds are ripe for plucking.

Presumably there will be a few hard-core jihadists whose consciences and minds have become so seared by evil and hatred that they can never yield, but in that case it is no longer merely Islam that makes them un-cooperative.

So I believe interrogation will be useful in many cases.

As for the ideology part of the conflict … that is something that the rest of us need to fight at every opportunity.

YiZhangZhe on January 19, 2010 at 3:14 PM