Learning to Interrogate Effectively

Amy is right about the thinness of US military expertise on interrogation, and the relative paucity of empirical research on what works. However given the history of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, I have a hard time taking her suggestion of experimenting with coercive interrogation on undergraduates at face value.

I probably don’t have as good an imagination as Amy, but because of the considerations of trust and expectations addressed here, I fail to see what experiments on undergraduates could tell you about the value of coercive interrogation. Moreover, the Stanley Milgram torture experiment and the Philip Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment convince me both how difficult it is to keep real-world interrogations under control and how difficult such experiments would be to control or to keep within ethical bounds.

The Science pages of this morning’s NYT contain an article describing some research on strategies for assessing the truthfulness of statements by suspects in police interviews, and on interview strategies likely to accentuate the difference. But this requires a situation where the norm is for the subject to talk in order to appear innocent and be released. If the subject doesn’t talk, such content strategies will not work. This is why the Geneva Convention famously allows prisoners to only give their name, rank, and serial number, and why American military personnel are ordered not to volunteer additional information should they become prisoners.

In Iraq and in Afghanistan, many of the participants in anti-US activities are not fully committed, and many do try to convince their questioners that they are innocent. In this context you would think that a rapid ability to cross-check stories would be an asset to investigators, but Amy is right that getting our government to fund the development and testing of such basic tools and methods was not easy.

Post-Vietnam, the American military had tried to purge itself of any capability for policing or “small wars,” and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld refused to listen to those who wanted to revive the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) traditions of the Army. It’s not an accident that in Iraq first the Pentagon and then the State Department relied on a young Australian, David Kilcullen, as their counter-insurgency advisor. When your whole approach to military planning is to dominate the conventional battlefield, defeat the opposing army, and leave (forswearing “nation building”), there’s little reason to spend resources on perfecting interrogation techniques. Now that the COIN experts are taking over the Pentagon, there is a chance that the “operational art” of interrogation will receive some systematic attention.

Nevertheless, US forces in Iraq did eventually develop some significant intelligence innovations. Part of their success involved the use of interviews with captured insurgents. See for example the story of how Zarqawi was located and killed, in part through traditional interrogation techniques applied by experienced military interrogators (as opposed to CIA amateurs): “Matthew Alexander,” How to Break a Terrorist.

In our government, police and FBI have more experience with successful interrogation than the military and CIA. A serious attempt at finding the best methods usually starts from the best current practice and conducts empirical and theoretical work from that base.

Update A reader points us to this Intelligence-Community-sponsored multi-author study that repeatedly stresses the lack of empirical information on the effectiveness of alternative strategies for eliciting information from captives, addresses the degree to which many interrogation techniques derive from activities similar to the Spanish inquisition, and points to indications of the relative effectiveness of more cooperative forms of interrogation.