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Interrogation is a process that seeks to obtain information by questioning (usually direct questioning) from a person often described as either a suspect or a source. Interrogation may be conducted for a number of reasons, most commonly in pursuit of a criminal investigation or to collect intelligence concerning foreign states, terrorist groups, or other persons considered to be actual or potential threats to national security. Interrogation raises a variety of legal and ethical issues that turn upon the techniques employed. But a practical issue common to all methods of interrogation concerns the efficacy of the method deployed. This depends, in part, on the ability of the interrogator (or the interrogator’s associates) to detect deception. However, it is not possible to conduct a legitimate empirical study assessing the comparative efficacy of aggressive and nonaggressive interrogation tactics. Such a study would violate accepted norms of research ethics, not to mention numerous domestic and international legal provisions. For this reason, claims of relative efficacy tend to rest on sporadic anecdotal evidence.
Methods of Interrogation
Interrogation techniques range from so-called rapportbuilding—which often uses conversation to gain the trust and confidence of the suspect or source—to physical or mental torture that leaves the victim with permanent physical or mental scars. Between these two extremes are a number of aggressive tactics, such as stress positions, sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, and exposure to temperature extremes. These techniques—particularly when used in combination—often constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of international law as well as domestic legal norms. In some cases, aggressive tactics may constitute physical or mental torture, despite the absence of permanent physical injury or psychological damage. Although interrogational torture has been used (and is still used) throughout the world, public statements of experienced interrogators tend to eschew torture on the grounds that it yields unreliable results. This is because, under pressure, suspects tend to say what they think their interrogators want to hear.
Often suspects will confess in the hope that this will ease the pressure imposed by interrogators. These are sometimes called pressured-compliant confessions (Gudjonsson 2003). Sometimes persistent pressured interrogation leads suspects to doubt their own recollections, particularly in the face of apparently confident assertions by interrogators that the suspect is guilty of a crime. There have been a number of well-documented cases in which false confessions—and, as a result, criminal convictions—were obtained following the use of high pressure interrogation tactics. One of the best-known examples, given international prominence by the Oscar-nominated film In the Name of the Father (dir. Jim Sheridan, 1993), is the case of the so-called Guildford Four. It arose out of a devastating bombing campaign conducted by the Irish Republican Army on mainland Britain in 1974. Convictions were secured largely on the basis of purported confessions, despite the defendants’ claims that they had been threatened and assaulted while in custody. The convictions were not overturned until 1989, after the defendants had spent fifteen years in prison. In 2005 the British prime minister, Tony Blair, apologized to the Guildford Four and said that they deserved to be “completely and publicly exonerated.”
Interrogators have long been interested in using pharmacological agents to overcome resistance to interrogation. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran a program known by the codename MKULTRA, established in response to reports of alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean mind-control techniques. (These reports were given some credence when thirty-six American airmen shot down in the Korean War falsely confessed to a vast plot to bomb civilian targets.) The MKULTRA program involved experiments (many of which were carried out on unwitting subjects) using psychoactive drugs such as LSD and mescaline in an attempt to control or influence human behavior. Other drugs reportedly used, either in experiments or during actual counterintelligence interrogations, include scopolamine, sodium pentothal, and sodium amytal. However, there is little evidence that any so-called truth serum has ever lived up to its name or its legend in popular culture. It has been alleged that, after the terror attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the CIA took a renewed interest in using drugs as interrogation aids. It has also been reported that the CIA used drugs prior to interrogating (among others) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior Al-Qaeda operative who is alleged to have been the architect of the 9/11 attacks and who was captured by the United States in 2003.
There are a variety of approaches to detecting deception in interrogation. They include analysis of verbal and nonverbal behavioral cues, analysis of the content of interrogation responses, and measurement of the physiological responses to questioning. Empirical research indicates that most people (including many professional interrogators) are unable to detect deception from demeanor. Several studies have demonstrated that accuracy is generally close to chance. However, a very small number of people have proven exceptionally prodigious in their ability to detect deception. According to psychologist Paul Ekman, these people are able to detect lies by observing microexpressions, fleeting movements of dozens of facial muscles. (Ekman has catalogued these microexpressions and taught others to recognize them [Ekman 2004].) Another approach, content-based criteria analysis, scrutinizes the contents of statements for potential evidence of truthfulness, such as superfluous detail and spontaneous self-correction.
Advances in technology often seem to promise simpler methods for detecting deception, but they usually fail to deliver. The polygraph (the so-called lie detector) relies on physiological manifestations of anxiety—changes in skin conductance, heart rate, and respiration—in order to flag deception. It is therefore not effective when the subject is a sociopath or has learned to suppress these manifestations. In addition, anxiety about being tested makes the polygraph “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results” (National Research Council 2003, p. 2). A number of universities and private companies—some of which are reported to have substantial U.S. government funding—are trying to develop and promote technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and infrared spectroscopy in order to detect deception by monitoring brain activity. Since the publication of a scientific paper on fMRI-based lie detection in early 2002 (Langleben at al. 2002), there has been considerable interest in the use of fMRI in particular. Despite concerns about the artificiality of such laboratory studies and their limited application in realworld scenarios, there are reports that fMRI may have already been used in counterterrorism interrogations. Some commentators have argued that fMRI has the potential to make interrogation more humane. However, false positives create further risk of mistreatment and abuse, particularly if there is undue confidence in the ability of the new technology to screen terrorists from a pool of suspects. On the other hand, if new brain imaging technologies ultimately meet their proponents’ expectations, their impact on privacy and so-called cognitive liberty will need to be addressed.
Criminal Interrogation and Investigative Interviewing
A popular approach to criminal interrogation in the United States is known as the Reid Technique, named after the late president of John E. Reid & Associates, a corporation that provides interrogation training to both public and private sectors in the United States. The Reid Technique is a nine-step process designed for use on “suspects whose guilt seems definite or reasonably certain” (Inbau et al. 2001). It commences with direct confrontation of the suspect by the investigator—who states that the suspect is considered guilty of the offense—and is intended to lead to a formal confession. Proponents of the technique advocate the use of deception, including props such as a large file containing blank sheets of paper, to create the impression that the investigator already has incriminating evidence. At various stages, the investigator evaluates the suspect’s verbal and nonverbal responses. If the suspect listens attentively when he is offered a motive for the crime and a potential moral excuse, this may be taken as an indication of guilt. But if he reacts with resentment, it may be considered an indication of innocence. Critics of this approach claim that it rests on the assumption that the only method of solving many criminal investigations is by obtaining a confession from the perpetrator. They also challenge the need to use trickery, deceit, and psychological manipulation, including techniques that the general public would ordinarily consider unethical (Gudjonsson 2003).
There is considerable variation—even among Western democracies—in the legal rights accorded to suspects who are interrogated in the course of a criminal investigation. In the United States, before suspects in police custody are interrogated, they must be informed that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can and will be used in evidence against them, that they have the right to an attorney, and that if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them. This is often described as the Miranda warning (while the rights themselves are referred to as Miranda rights) after the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona (1966). That case made clear the necessity for the warning in order to implement and protect the privilege against self-incrimination (or the right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself) enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. If, following a Miranda warning, the suspect refuses to talk, the prosecution will not be permitted to comment at trial on the suspect’s silence. A statement obtained by police without a Miranda warning cannot be relied upon by the prosecution in order to make its case at trial, unless the defendant contradicts that statement in his oral testimony—in which case, the statement may be used to impeach the defendant, that is, to undermine his credibility as a witness.
The Supreme Court has also made clear that suspects should not be “threatened, tricked, or cajoled into a waiver” of their Miranda rights. However, empirical studies suggest that in at least 80 percent of cases suspects do waive their rights and make a statement to the police. This may be due in part to strategies adopted by police interrogators—such as deemphasizing the importance of the Miranda warning by reading it in a monotonous voice or trying to persuade the suspect that he is being offered a good opportunity to tell his story and that the interrogator is trying to help him. These strategies will not invalidate the suspect’s waiver of the Miranda rights if, taking into account all the circumstances, the court concludes that the waiver was “voluntary and intelligent.”
Interrogation and the Collection of Intelligence
The laws of war—in particular, the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949—impose strict limits on the questioning of prisoners of war. Strictly speaking, prisoners of war are only required to state their name, rank, and serial number. They must not be subjected to physical and mental torture or “any other form of coercion,” and they must be protected against “acts of violence or intimidation and against insults.” If prisoners of war refuse to answer questions during interrogation, they “may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” Similar protections are also provided for civilian detainees by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. The laws of war do not, however, prohibit positive inducements or incentives for responsiveness to questioning. International human rights law—which applies both in war and in times of peace—also prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and positively requires the humane treatment of detainees.
Prior to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, official U.S. Army interrogation policy and practice reflected these international norms. Army Field Manual 34-52 (1992) on interrogation states that the laws of war and U.S. policy “expressly prohibit acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation.” It also states that the “use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” After 9/11, when further attacks were anticipated and feared, more aggressive interrogation techniques were formally authorized and adopted at U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Techniques used included sleep deprivation, stress positions, prolonged isolation, and exposure to temperature extremes. (Controversially, U.S. Army psychiatrists and psychologists—attached to military intelligence and acting as behavioral science consultants—were tasked with advising interrogators as to the most effective approach for individual detainees.) Such tactics were formally justified on a number of legal grounds, among them that terrorists were not subject to the protections of the Geneva Conventions and that the international human rights obligations of the United States did not prohibit cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of aliens detained abroad. (It was the latter claim that the U.S. Congress intended to rebut when it passed the so-called McCain Amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill at the end of 2005.) The U.S. government has claimed that the use of more aggressive interrogation techniques has procured valuable intelligence, but this has not been independently verified.
The publication of photographs in 2004 recording the abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq triggered public debate in the United States and abroad about the proper limits of interrogation. These debates were further fuelled by revelations that the CIA was interrogating detainees at secret locations in eastern Europe and elsewhere (called black sites, whose existence President George W. Bush subsequently confirmed) and that the United States had handed detainees over to nations known to torture suspects (a practice described as extraordinary rendition).
In a landmark decision in June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court held that suspected Al-Qaeda detainees are entitled to the basic protections found in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld 2006). At a minimum, they must be treated humanely, and protected from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and from outrages on personal dignity. A few weeks later the army published a new field manual on interrogation, Field Manual 2-22.3 (2006), which prohibits interrogation tactics such as “waterboarding” (a procedure designed to simulate the experience of drowning), the hooding of detainees, and the use of barking dogs. However, this manual does not apply to detainees in the custody of the CIA, and concerns about the continuing use of aggressive interrogation tactics were fueled by two further developments.
After President Bush criticized the provisions of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions for being “too vague,” Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which purports to give the president the authority to “interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions” (Sec. 6(a)(3)). When the president signed the act into law, he noted that it would “allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives” (Bush 2006). Just days later, while lawyers and commentators were debating the effect of the act on permissible interrogation strategies, Vice President Richard Cheney sparked further controversy. When asked in a radio interview if “a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives,” Mr. Cheney replied, “it’s a no-brainer for me” (Eggen 2006, p. A2). He also expressed agreement with the view that the debate over interrogation techniques was “a little silly” (Eggen 2006, p. A2).
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