The U.S.’s premier unit for interrogating terrorists is interested in science. No, not junk science like the Sodium Pentothal “truth serum.”* Actual behavioral science to help learn how to make a terrorist talk — quickly, truthfully and, importantly, humanely.
Earlier this month, the secretive unit, known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, put out a call for “behavioral science research to advance the science and practice of intelligence interviewing and interrogation.” Behind that dry and bureaucratic language is a major success for opponents of torture.
It sounds kind of basic: shouldn’t all interrogations use behavioral science as a jumping-off point? As it turns out, this is something of a controversial position. And it’s going to confront a well-publicized counterattack in the coming weeks.
Within months of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA — for reasons it never disclosed — turned to ex-Air Force psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell for help in designing an exceptionally harsh interrogation regimen for use on al-Qaida detainees. Jessen and Mitchell had never participated in a real interrogation. Nor did they have any particular expertise with al-Qaida. But they claimed to understand the conditions of induced discomfort that would force a detainee to spill. A Senate inquiry in 2008 determined that Jessen and Mitchell heavily influenced the Bush administration’s practices of waterboarding; “cramped confinement”; dietary and sleep manipulation; and “stress positions,” among other practices that Bush-era State Department adviser Philip Zelikow recently described to Danger Room as “war crimes.”
Years later, after all this came to light, a group of actual behavioral scientists, military interrogators and terrorism experts came to believe that the torture of al-Qaida detainees was worse than a crime; it was a mistake. Mitchell and Jessen advised the CIA that successful interrogations required stuffing a detainee in a small wooden box containing insects. This loose-knit group considered that both morally repugnant and professionally irresponsible, since it would lead a detainee to say anything to make the pain or fear stop, regardless of the truth.
They set to work creating a blueprint to rectify that mistake — with science.
That blueprint became a two-volume study (the second volume is classified) called “Educing Information.” The public version of “Educing Information” consists of case studies from different wars and police interrogations that urged professionals to build emotional rapport with the detainees they interviewed. It wasn’t a kindness — it was emotional leverage to exploit, so a detainee would disclose information about a terrorist group against his better judgment or his interest.
To do so would require understanding state-of-the-art social and behavioral science. Some of its research was highly technical, recommending “heart rate and function monitors, skin conductance sensors, thermal photography, voice frequency analysis, and brain activation patterns measured via electronic wave patterns or via magnetic resonance imaging” — all to determine if someone was lying. Other recommendations were as simple as reading interrogation plans from previous wars to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
But the group behind “Educing Information” had an entranceway into the U.S. spy community. It reported to the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory group for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, nominally the head of U.S. spy organizations. In 2009, after President Obama banned the Bush-era torture program, some of the group’s members advised the spies and the Justice Department to create a new unit that would be informed by the available research, and use it on the most important terrorism detainees the U.S. captured. That proposal became the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.
Now, the group is calling for the next wave of research — essentially following up on “Educing Information.” And those follow ups are extensive.
The group, known inside the government as the HIG, wants outside analysts to “field quasi-experimental studies to evaluate the efficacy of new evidence-based interrogation, intelligence interview and debrief strategies and methods.” It wants “laboratory or field studies of interpersonal processes (e.g., social influence, persuasion, negotiation, conflict resolution and management), with particular attention to cultural and intercultural issues.” It seeks “studies to assess the validity of evidence-based interviewing, deception detection, and other relevant principles and/or methods across non-U.S. populations both with and without the use of interpreters.”
It’s actually a striking admission of ignorance. Over a decade since 9/11, U.S. interrogators don’t sufficiently understand the craft they practice.
That — and, indeed, the whole science-based approach to interrogation — is about to come under serious challenge. By the end of the month, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, will publish perhaps the most public defense yet of CIA torture. The book, “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” is likely to rekindle the torture debate — and portray Rodriguez, who destroyed nearly 100 videotapes of detainees being tortured, as “a real life Jack Bauer from television’s 24,” according to the book’s promotional material.
Rodriguez may argue that the CIA perfected interrogations, all without the aid of science. But those responsible for conducting interrogations now are turning to it — as a repudiation of the brutal methods Rodriguez helped implement.
*All Sodium Pentothal — or its generic form, sodium thiopental — does is decrease your higher brain functions. It’s like drinking heavily, or doing a lot of barbiturates. A subject is going to be looser with his tongue, not necessarily more truthful. If a friend has ever lied to you while drunk, you know that Sodium Pentothal is far from foolproof.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
New U.S. Interrogation Tool: Science