Interrogation Nation

Quincy is clouding the issues here. His post illustrates 3 common problems in this whole interrogation debate:

Problem 1: Rushing to the dark corner of the room.

My post argued that we need much better evidence about which interrogation methods work better than others. I did not use the word “coercive” for a reason: I wasn’t talking about coercive measures, but the countless other ways that law enforcement, military, and intelligence officials try to elicit information. The Intelligence Science Board 2006 report is right: we don’t have nearly enough evidence to make well-informed judgments about what methods should be used.

Problem 2: Conflating experience and success.

Quincy writes:

“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.”

Nuh-uh. The police and FBI have more experience with interrogations. But that doesn’t automatically mean they’re better at it. My 94-year old grandmother has more experience driving a car than I do. But there’s no way I’d ride in her passenger seat. Quincy’s got it backwards. Good research starts by assuming NOTHING about best practices and letting the evidence speak for itself.

Problem 3: The tyranny of anecdotes

Many interrogators are now speaking up about their own experiences. This is useful and important. But we should demand more. Plenty of social science research shows that most of us wildly overestimate our own skills and think we’re much better than average — a statistical impossibility. Interrogator perspectives are useful, but let’s not jump to the conclusion that their self-assessment is the same thing as science.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.