Here’s What Actually Gets Terrorists To Tell The Truth — And It’s Not Torture.

Over the past five years, psychological research — some involving real terrorist suspects — has shown how to get information from people who don’t want to talk. Now Washington has the chance to put these findings into practice.  Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Thanks to the hit TV show 24 and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, we think we know what terrorist interrogations look like: After being roughed up and threatened, the suspect breaks down and reveals all. Mass murder is thwarted. Osama Bin Laden is shot.  The end, we tell ourselves, justifies the ugly means. Even after the abuses committed at CIA “black sites” were laid bare last year by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, most Americans stuck to this view. Some 59% believed the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods were justified, in a December 2014 poll run for the Washington Post and ABC News.  Steven Kleinman knows better. In 2003, he was one of the U.S. Air Force’s top interrogators, sent to Iraq to oversee the questioning of suspected insurgents. After arriving in Baghdad, he walked into a darkened room to find a handcuffed detainee kneeling before a seated military interrogator. The suspect was slapped across the face every time he answered a question — whatever he had to say. Kleinman was told that it had being going on for half an hour. Then a lieutenant colonel, Kleinman pulled rank and halted the interrogation. But what he had witnessed was by then standard practice. “Later I saw people being stripped nude and forced to stand for a long period of time,” Kleinman told BuzzFeed News.  Kleinman was appalled not only because what he saw breached human rights, but also because his long experience in interrogation told him that it just wouldn’t work. “It’s not even close to a consistent means of getting reliable information,” Kleinman said.  At the time, it was easy to dismiss the anecdotal experience of interrogators who opposed these abusive methods. “We didn’t have the science,” Mark Fallon, formerly a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent, told BuzzFeed News. When Fallon arrived at Guantánamo Bay in 2002, leading the effort to bring terrorist detainees before military courts, he had more relevant experience than anyone else present. He had helped prosecute Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and had led the investigation into al-Qaeda’s 2000 attack on the USS Cole.  Yet even Fallon was sidelined as inexperienced interrogators implemented the harsh tactics — including sleep deprivation, isolation, and painful stress positions — that had suddenly come to dominate the military’s approach. Today, Kleinman and Fallon finally have science on their side. Over the past five years, a small group of researchers has pulled together a body of evidence about what works in getting people to give up their secrets. It has nothing to do with abuse and coercion. 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. When the U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess in September, it can pass a law that makes this new science of interrogation the official playbook across the federal government. When the U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess in September, it can pass a law that makes this new science of interrogation the official playbook across the federal government. 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.” So much for what doesn’t work. But what does? Getting good answers to that question has been a priority for the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), which brings together intelligence experts from the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department. It was established by President Barack Obama in 2009 to set a new course for terrorist interrogations after the abuses committed in the early days of the “war on terror.” Since 2010, the HIG has also backed researchers working to transform the science of interrogation.  Yet there’s little evidence that adversarial interrogations work — unless your goal is obtaining a high rate of false confessions. And the idea that liars reveal themselves when under high emotional stress stands on similarly shaky scientific ground. Polygraphs, which detect signs of arousal including heart rate and sweating, are notoriously unreliable. Rather than focusing on stress, the new interrogation research program has concentrated on interviewing techniques that help people remember details about events — and make it harder for liars to keep their story together. 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.  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. “Credibility is all in the words people use,” Meissner told BuzzFeed News. “It’s in the way they tell their story.” And crucially, it seems hard to game the system. Telling a lie is more mentally demanding than telling the truth, and hiding this cognitive effort is harder than concealing signs of stress. Make a memory task tougher — by getting suspects to tell their story in reverse order, for example — and the differences become even more obvious.  In one study, Morgan simulated the investigation of a bioterrorist plot. He recruited biologists, who all visited a coffee shop in New Haven and were told remember what they saw. Some of them were also shown a picture of a “terrorist” and asked to phone him. They met him at the coffee shop and were given instructions and materials to grow cells in the lab. All of the biologists were given cognitive interviews — including reverse order recall — by interrogators with more than 15 years of experience. Most of the biologists simply had to truthfully remember what they saw, but those who had participated in the plot had to do so while denying any knowledge of the terrorist or involvement in his activities. By analyzing the total length of the biologists’ responses, and the number of unique words they used, Morgan found that he could separate the liars from the truth-tellers with 84% accuracy. This vastly outperformed the experts who conducted the interviews — whose judgments were little better than flipping a coin. Other methods that help detect liars include strategically withholding key evidence until late in an interrogation. Put all your cards on the table to begin with, and it’s too easy for a suspect to adapt their story to fit the facts.


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