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What the evidence says about getting terrorists to talk

“Building rapport with a suspect is what brings results,” reports science writer Peter Aldhous.

An Iraqi detainee gesturing toward U.S. soldiers through bars of his cell at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Early last month, at its annual meeting in Toronto, the American Psychological Association banned its members from participating in national security interrogations. 

The ban came in the wake of the damning “Hoffman Report,” which had found that several APA members had advised the CIA about “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — during the Bush administration.

The APA is now updating its code of ethics so that it can impose tougher, more enforceable sanctions against its psychologist-members who break the ban.

It’s not clear if such sanctions will deter psychologists from participating in the kind of interrogation methods used during the Bush administration. Undoubtedly, some psychologists — like a majority of the American public — believe that the torture of terrorism suspects is justified because it will reveal valuable intelligence.

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Only it doesn’t, as science reporter Peter Aldhous explains in a terrific recent article for Buzzfeed News.

In the article, Aldhous also describes the interrogation approach that actually does get terrorists to give up their secrets — and it’s not torture, despite what the writers for TV shows like “24” or movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” might have us believe.

“It has nothing to do with abuse and coercion,” writes Aldhous. “Instead, it borrows methods from psychotherapy to get suspects talking and uses the science of how our brains process information to separate truth from lies.”

Why torture doesn’t work

Aldhous begins by explaining why brutal interrogation methods fail to provide useful information:

It’s true that torture can make people talk. But they will often say anything to make the suffering stop. During the Korean War, for instance, captured U.S. pilots admitted to atrocities that never happened, including dropping chemical weapons on civilian populations.

Recent research with SERE trainees also indicates that brutal treatment will make it difficult, if not impossible, for a detainee to recall the details an interrogator may be looking for. The stress of mock interrogation disrupts trainees’ ability to perform on standard tests of memory, according to studies done by Andy Morgan, a psychiatrist at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and a former intelligence officer with the CIA. Most become detached from reality, showing symptoms of mental “dissociation” — such as time seeming to slow down, or out-of-body experiences — that also happen during traumatic events like car accidents.

Expecting brutal interrogations to extract good intelligence is like “banging a hammer on a radio to get a better signal,” Morgan told BuzzFeed News. “It doesn’t enhance cognition. It only makes it worse.”

Separating liars from truth-tellers

So what does work? “Interviewing techniques that help people remember details about events — and makes it harder for liars to keep their story together,” writes Aldhous.

Central to this approach is the “cognitive interview,” developed by Ronald Fisher, a psychologist at Florida International University in Miami. Rather than being asked a series of questions, suspects may be told to close their eyes and recall what happened at a key meeting, or draw a sketch of the room in which it took place. They are encouraged to go over events repeatedly and offer details whether or not they seem important.

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In one test, Fisher’s team asked seasoned instructors at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, to get their colleagues to recall the details of meetings held to plan field exercises. Those who used a cognitive interview, rather than the standard approach of asking direct questions, extracted 80% more information.

This approach can also separate liars from truth-tellers. When recalling their experiences in a cognitive interview, people who are telling the truth give longer and more detailed answers. Their recollections also tend to grow as more details come back into focus. Liars, on the other hand, typically tell a bare-bones story that doesn’t develop with retelling.

Getting people to talk

Research involving almost 181 videos of British law enforcement interviews with 49 suspects later convicted of terrorist offenses (Irish paramilitaries, right-wing extremists and al-Qaeda operatives) has also confirmed, writes Aldhous, that “building rapport with a suspect is what brings results.”

Laurence Alison, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, convinced the British authorities to share videos of their terrorism interviews. His team scrutinized the videos, looking for the extent to which the investigators used methods known to build rapport. Some of these methods, including being nonjudgmental and empathetic, are commonly used by therapists. The methods also include allowing detainees some autonomy — which for suspected Islamic terrorists can mean letting them pray on their usual schedule and speak to an imam.

Alison found that interrogators who scored highest on his rapport-building scale got more information and minimized suspects’ use of counter-interrogation tactics like refusing to look at the interviewer, remaining silent, and changing the subject. Even a small amount of bad interpersonal behavior, such as hints of sarcasm, undermined attempts to get suspects to talk. “It really shuts people down,” Alison told BuzzFeed News. 

Some of Alison’s findings may seem counterintuitive. “The more you reinforce their right to silence, the more likely they are to talk to you,” Alison said. He likens it to the tactics used by successful parents: “If you are good at dealing with your kids, and you have the interpersonal skills, they will be better behaved.” 

Time to rewrite manual

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, R-Arizona, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have introduced an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that would limit the government from using any interrogation technique not specified in the Army Field Manual.

The amendment also requires the manual to be revised within a year to reflect “current, evidence-based, best practices for interrogation that are designed to elicit reliable and voluntary statements and do not involve the use or threat of force.” The manual would then be updated every three years.

The current field manual “is based on conjecture and history rather than science,” a psychologist and former U.S. Air Force interrogator who has been advocating for reforms for more than a decade told Aldhous. “It needs to be revised.”

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You can read Aldhous’ article on the Buzzfeed News website.