In action movies, interrogations are usually screaming blood donations performed with fists and knives instead of syringes. But that’s only because torture gets shit done. I mean, if you had some kind of vital information like, hypothetically, what happened to the lawnmower I lent you two weeks ago, Michael, you would probably give it up after a few hours of gut-punches and having a car battery strapped to your junk… right? To make sure I didn’t burn any bridges with the neighbors for nothing, I consulted Drew who used to work as a National Guard human intelligence collector in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me that:
5. Torture Really Doesn’t Work
There are only two things that experts, neurologists, and the military all agree on: Treasure Planet was criminally underrated and:
“No physical or mental torture or any other form of coercion may be inflicted on Enemy Prisoners of War to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”
That’s a word-for-word quote from the U.S. Army, and it’s there for a good goddamn reason. Two goddamn reasons actually: because torture is a dick move and that’s precisely what it gets you. Dick.
Former FBI agent and the most successful al-Qaeda interrogator Ali Soufan said he never felt the need to use enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding because people will say ANYTHING to make their pain stop. And while it may seem unfair, that even includes lying. Additionally, Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, has found that pain can seriously mess with a person’s memory and cognition. Meaning that, if you torture someone long enough, you can get them to confess to the Lincoln assassination and really believe it.
That’s why, according to Drew, you can only trust information that the source has given up willingly.
“Let’s say I’m doing an onsite interrogation on some low-level bad guy. My team needs to move forward to the next objective, but we are in hostile territory and don’t have a good lay of the land.”
“Do I want to torture the source into telling me where the IEDs and snipers are? Or do I want the source to tell me, upon his own volition, were the IEDs and snipers are.”
“Why would he do that? Well, it depends on his motivation. Let’s say [he] was storing explosives for al-Qaeda because they were holding his sister hostage. If we went in, got ambushed, and started shooting up the place, then we could very well hit his sister in the crossfire. Or, he could tell us where the snipers are so we can flank them, take them out quietly and with little chance of innocents getting caught up in the mix. In the end, his goal of protecting his sister is met and our goal of getting the bad guys is met.”
That’s not to say no assholeness ever happens but it has consequences. Drew once witnessed a desperate interrogator, who had no idea what they were doing, slapping and kicking a prisoner to make them talk. “The soldier doing the hitting got demoted. He essentially became the company janitor … He bagged up everyone’s laundry, filled out laundry tickets, delivered it to our tents once it was washed. He wasn’t ever allowed back in the prison facility again.”
Alright, but let’s say a prisoner isn’t an unwilling pawn being used by terrorists after they’ve Taken-ed their relative. How do you get “true believers” to talk? Well…
4. Shame Is A Great Interrogation Tool
Hanns Scharff was a German Luftwaffe officer widely considered one of the greatest interrogators in history. Out of 500 Allied prisoners he interviewed, he didn’t get any useful information out of only 20. But… yeah? He was a German interrogator during WWII, a horror movie cliché come to life. So what techniques did he use? Needles under fingernails? Electric shocks? Showing his prisoners what’s underneath the eyepatch I just assume he had?
Actually, Scharff’s approach was different. He would always keep calm, not press for information, and act like he already had all the answers. The techniques Drew learned take A LOT of cues from the so-called “Scharff method,” but they’ve been adapted to better serve in a Middle Eastern environment where shame is one of the most powerful weapons around.
“The British guys used mostly one approach: Logic Up Hard.”
“They’d sit with prisoners for hours and hours calmly poking holes in their story and making them look stupid. Eventually, it always came down to the prisoner either admitting he was lying or admitting he was an idiot. If he admitted he was an idiot, then he would be shaming himself. If he admitted he was lying, same thing. People from those regions of the world don’t really do shame well.”
However, it’s not a strictly Middle Eastern kind of thing. The most successful interrogators set themselves up as a sort of “parental” authority figures and everyone knows that there’s nothing more humiliating and heartbreaking than getting caught at a lie by your parent and hearing those dreadful six words: “Why did I use discount condoms…?” And also: “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.”
“During my very first interrogation in Afghanistan, the prisoner peed on himself,” Drew recalls. “Earlier I told him that I had been watching him talk to my soldier and that I had watched him lie to her. I told him that I will put up with a lot of trouble but I will not put up for lies. I eventually told him ‘I am your last chance to tell the truth.’ Then he pissed himself. I asked why he pissed himself. He said he had never been more afraid ever before in his life. I told him not to be afraid, gave him a hug and told him to never lie to me. He never lied to me. He ended up being a great source. He even started working for the MPs, ratting on guys in the holding cells.”
3. Sometimes, You Stumble Upon Stuff WAY Above Your Paygrade
I don’t want to give you the impression that military interrogation is all getting chummy with people who might want you dead, like on Hogan’s Heroes or, if you’re European/cultured, ‘Allo ‘Allo! Sometimes it can feel like being a side character on Homeland. Drew explains:
“There was a co-worker who was working through a bus of people who got arrested. In one of the bags on the bus they found a ton of information about troop movements, Afghan National Army rosters, Coalition activities, lists of known and suspected bad guys in the area, all sorts of useful stuff.”
Hey, as the old saying goes: sometimes you have to hug a guy in urine-soaked pants, and sometimes the universe just gives you a gift.
“This prisoner kept saying ‘I can’t talk to you, call Dave at the Embassy in Kabul’ and gave us a phone number … The comms guys check it out, and no shit it goes to the US Embassy in Kabul. They call the number and tell ‘Dave’ what’s going on. Dave tells them to stop all collection activity on the source immediately, put him in a safe solitary cell and wait for further instructions … A little while later the installation commander comes to the prison facility with a team of MPs ready to bust us up.”
“The MP guards run the cell floor conducting a cell breach into the gen pop cells, just like if there were a fight or something going on, to extract the prisoner and get him to a safe isolation cell.”
Turns out the prisoner was some big wig intelligence chief in an Islamic political party/militant group. Now, technically they were America’s enemies but there was one group they hated even more: the Taliban. And because the U.S. firmly believes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, many three-letter U.S. agencies wanted this guy to do his best pigeon impression atop of their stools and tell them everything he knew about the Taliban.
“‘Dave’ was his agency handler/get out of jail free card. That shit worked. He got the fuck out of jail in record time. All his bio-data and personal information was taken too, including his case file and any notes the interrogator took on him.”
2. Even If You Find Out Something Useful, Nothing May Come From It
“I once drew a backroads road map from Afghanistan to Pakistan based only on the descriptions of the prisoner,” Drew recalls. “This was some, ‘Turn left at the big rock and go straight until you see where the three-legged donkey used to live’ type of stuff.”
This information was very important because it not only told Drew that the prisoner apparently grew up in the American south, it also pointed to hidden weapon stashes used by terrorists.
“The story was [the prisoner] had come from [Pakistan] and placed equipment along a route for other fighters crossing the border. We worked out a map from his memory. Then I went on a recon drive with a unit following my map. We spent probably 12 hours driving what should have took 6. Then we said fuck it, this is retarded, and went back home. We said we didn’t find anything because we didn’t find anything.”
This may sound like Drew and his unit just being bad at their jobs, except for the fact that this TOTALLY WASN’T THEIR JOB. The problem was that his company commander watched too many CSI shows and forgot that intelligence collectors are just technicians and aren’t really trained to go out into the field.
“It was stupid and dangerous for a company commander of an intelligence collection unit to send his surveillance and interrogation guys out to drive around Afghanistan in a Toyota pickup truck looking for weapons caches. What would we do if we were attacked? If we made enemy contact with experienced fighters, that team and I would be dead. We went because the commander told us to. Nobody got in trouble for it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t stupid and dangerous.”
For all Drew knows, all those weapon stashes are still out there just waiting for someone to find them. Now there’s an idea for a Three Kings sequel.
1. The Enemy Has So Many Tricks For Confusing Interrogators
The area that is now Afghanistan has been in a state of perpetual war for millennia. And when you live in a country where the unofficial anthem is video game boss music, you quickly learn how to use your brain to outsmart and outmaneuver the enemy in the most cerebral ways possible.
Or, when it comes to confusing Allied interrogators, you can just change shirts with another prisoner and send him out to be interrogated instead.
“I was doing an interrogation once where I was talking to the wrong guy. I was trying to exploit a communication radio he had on him when he was arrested. We went on for probably an hour about this fucking radio. He kept saying he never saw it before. Eventually I got a feeling that something wasn’t adding up. Turns out that he switched shirts (which had their prisoner ID numbers on them) with a guy in his cell.” This is yet another reason why you don’t use torture in an interrogation.
But the smartest prisoners were the old fighters. The guys who fought and were captured by the Soviets back in the Mujahideen days. They could lie like a politician during a rally in a swing state about how his relationship with his secretary is definitely not genitalia-based.
“The best lie is the one closest to the truth without betraying what the interrogator and Coalition forces don’t already know.”
“So they would tell us out of date information about stuff that should have already happened between the time they were arrested and the time they were questioned. They’d tell us information that danced around the truth.”
“Like one guy, he was a no shit legit miner. He mined for gemstones in the mountains. He had licenses for large quantities of explosives and knew how to use them. He told us where they were, he even admitted to selling them to farmers sometimes so the farmers could blow stumps and boulders out of their fields. But he could never tell us why his explosive purchase receipts didn’t match up to how much explosives he said he was using or selling. He just said he was bad at measuring and accounting.”
Now, this didn’t make sense because the guy handled explosives on a daily basis, which kind of requires you to be good with numbers in order to stay alive. And seeing as the prisoner still had all his fingers/wasn’t wearing a wooden tuxedo 6 feet underground, his story, like a calculator with a broken + button, just wasn’t adding up.
“The point is that he was almost definitely doling out explosives to Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some other organization. We couldn’t get him on it because his story was so tight, he was so cooperative otherwise, and he just couldn’t account for the missing explosives … Eventually he just said that maybe somebody stole it and he didn’t know where it was. Was that the truth? Fuck if I’ll ever know.”