Interrogations: How Did We Get to Brutal?

From brute force to mindful strategies, the evolution of interrogation science


Interrogation is a loaded term. It can invoke images of relentless pressure, presumptions of guilt, and perhaps even a sense of vertigo: the experience of being overpowered by the state. No one articulated the terrifying notion of this form of power, being exercised in sickening clouds of secrecy and obfuscation—and, critically, without legitimate justification—more clearly than Franz Kafka.

In his iconic novel, The Trial, Kafka invents a psychological hell in which the protagonist, referred only to as “K.”, is subjected to an entirely arbitrary and bizarre process of consecutive interrogations. It’s all done under the authority of a judicial process, but in fact, it has no semblance of justice at all. 

Published in 1925, The Trial has often been taken as a metaphor for Soviet communism or Nazi Germany,  although the mass purges of the former were years off and Hitler was still a relative nobody.  But it’s come to stand as a warning of the authoritarian excesses that can infiltrate any powerful state.

Alas, Kafka’s hell has existed under the roof of our judicial system as well. The process Kafka invented is eerily reminiscent of what happened at the CIA’s post 9/11 so-called black sites and in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, the indefinite suspension of justice for those still there continues today. 

Are all interrogations by their very nature immoral? No. Despite all the baggage that the word carries, interrogation can also be taken to be a morally neutral word, meaning merely an interaction between a person who may or may not have something to hide, and a person whose task it is to find the truth. Interpreted this way, interrogation has no moral connotations at all; it merely describes a psychological state of affairs, which involves two distinct elements. First, it involves the epistemic question—the veracity of the subject— for the interrogator, of deciphering what is true or not. Second, it involves the intricate dynamic of a psychological game; a structure that has been mapped mathematically by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their pioneering work, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, as well as many social and political scientists since. 

Three Waves of Interrogation 

It is a remarkable fact that empirical science on interrogation is in its infancy. With its rich political, legal, moral and psychological role in truly serious enterprises like the criminal justice system and intelligence activities, and the vast realms of national security, one would think that there would exist a long line of empirical inquiry about what happens during interrogations, what leads to error or even disaster, and, critically, what actually works. Unfortunately, this is not the case. 

The science of interrogation, in fact, is young. From what we know about interrogation to date, l distinguish between three waves of interrogation, which differ in their basic premises. They can be taken to be three different schools of interrogation, although, of course, there may be blurred lines. 

Pain and Pressure

The first wave I call pain-oriented interrogation. This is a broad label for tactics that span the range from blatant physical torture to, more recently, modes of psychological pressure and pain that are tantamount to coercion. At their core, pain-oriented interrogations operate on the notion that a guilty person will break as a function of suffering. The 1931 report of the Wickersham Commission, so named for a former attorney general appointed by President Herbert Hoover, documented wide-range abuse in criminal interrogation in the United States. They called it the third degree. It included physical brutality or threats thereof, and prolonged questioning to the point of exhausting a suspect’s physical and psychological resources to resist. 

After the commission’s revelations of widespread physical abuse in interrogations, policy and practice in this country gradually changed. However, according to the distinguished psychologist and lawyer Richard A.  Leo, who has studied many hundreds of interrogations in the American criminal justice system, changes in interrogation practice have been superficial rather than profound. In fact, Leo argues that because of the overt ban on the third degree, interrogation shifted to a psychological guise, while still maintaining the goal to break the suspect. He compares modern American interrogation to confidence games, “in the extent to which they involve the systematic use of deception, manipulation, and the betrayal of trust in the process of eliciting a suspect’s confession.” Psychological tactics of this form are also widespread in the armed forces, whose interrogation policy is controlled by the U.S. Army and encoded in the Army Field Manual. Startlingly, the manual has no origin in science, and contains recommendations that researchers have long known to be problematic

Apart from the ethical and legal issues with coercive interrogation, the epistemic question raised earlier looms large. After all, whether a random suspect goes free or is subjected to interrogation is sometimes a matter of judgment; it may also depend on the judgment of the officer who interrogates the suspects and determines whether they are released or detained. One would hope—and it also makes superficial sense—that people like police officers would have a certain, professional intuition about truth and deception, developed from experience or training or both. 

Unfortunately, a massive amount of science shows that law enforcement officers do not catch lies with much more success than one could expect from coin-flipping—importantly, this is true even for seasoned investigators. However much this findingviolates common sense, there is simply no evidence that people, including agents of the law, are good at separating truthful statements from deceptive ones. The cascading consequences of this axiomatic finding for truth-finding and justice is beyond the scope of this article (but the interested reader can turn to elaborations elsewhere).

Do No Harm

During the so-called Troubles—the violent conflicts between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland and the U.K.— systematic abuses of justice were uncovered in connection to investigations of terrorist acts attributed to or conducted by the Irish Republican Army. Several notorious cases provoked a political crisis that resulted in England and Wales adopting a major piece of legislative overhaul, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, intended to prevent miscarriages of justice, partly by regulating the treatment of people in custody. 

The second wave of interrogation emanated from legislative and cultural changes in Western Europe (notably, the U.K., Norway and parts of the Netherlands) in the 1980s and 90’s. This school rejected coercion as a viable or ethical means to generate reliable confessions. Furthermore, it rejected the idea that the goal of interrogation is to yield a confession; it instead held that the goal of interrogation should be the collection of accurate, reliable and complete information. A salient wave, mainly stemming from the U.K. and Norway, even rejects the term interrogation wholesale, and instead calls the process investigative interviewing. In the investigative interview paradigm, interviews with suspects are to be approached much like those of interviews with victims or witnesses, in the sense that the goal is professional information-gathering. This stance makes sense from an ethical point of view—of course, a suspect in custody has the same inalienable human rights as a non-suspect. 

The investigative interviewing paradigm often uses the acronym PEACE (Planning and Preparation, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate), a model that largely relies on the use of broad, open questions in order not to steer nor manipulate the suspect. Two researchers from the United Kingdom, Eric Shepherd and Andy Griffiths, consider any form of leading question counter-productive, and caution against the use of confirmatory questions (e.g., yes/no). In these interviews, there is to be no manipulative elements to the interrogation, only broad prompts in pursuit of maximum amount of information. 

Does investigative interviewing work? In the sense of reducing the use of harsh tactics, the answer is yes. But there is more to interrogation, of course, than avoiding coercion. Interrogators are trying to solve cases.  While experimental studies show that non-coercive models like PEACE do generate information, for sure both better and more complete than pain-based methods, field studies by British researcher Ray Bull and others cast doubt on how useful the investigative interviewing really is equipping interrogators with complex skills. Some also point to translational problems, whereby the research paradigm reflects an ideal that appears quite distant from actual practice.

Strategic Interrogation

While the strong emphasis on ethics in investigative interviewing is laudable, in other ways the paradigm is problematic. It holds that all forms of manipulation during interrogations are prohibited. This is a silly, if not irresponsible, position. It’s fair to ask how such a carte blanche prohibition bears out— philosophically, psychologically and practically. One can begin by pointing out that the no-manipulation ban violates basic facts about the fundamental nature of social behavior. As the seminal sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out, we manipulate others all the time—in blatant ways when we deceive, but also in more subtle ways when we communicate the truth. Also, one could argue that PEACE itself is actually paradoxically manipulative; it entails supposedly systematic attempts to establish rapport, careful planning of the questioning process, down to the very detail of the optimal angles of the furniture of the room. 

The third wave of interrogation science, which is unfolding as we speak, shares many premises with the investigative interviewing paradigm: It acknowledges that the objective of interrogation is to collect reliable, accurate and operationally useful information. It also rejects psychological coercion, and it emphasizes ethics as a core principle. However, strategic interrogation also acknowledges some possibly unpalatable but undeniable facts about interrogation that investigative interviewing either rejects or skirts around, including the fact that manipulation in some form may very well occur in the interrogation room. The ethics of such manipulation must be considered carefully. I align myself with philosophers of ethics who argue that the permissibility of manipulation is not dichotomous. That is, it is too simplistic to think of manipulation as either categorically prohibited or permitted. There are in fact modes of manipulation that are morally defensible; that do not constitute coercion, in part because they do not constrain autonomy; they leave the subject with multiple options for how to behave. 

Again, the epistemic question—who is this person and is he or she telling the truth?—is a fundamental piece of interrogation. Is this person of interest to the investigation? Is this the culprit? Is a given statement true? After all, some suspects are in fact guilty and may very well lie, obfuscate, bullshit and manipulate a whole lot in order to get away with whatever they are aiming to conceal. Others may have nothing at all to hide, and hence operate with a wholly different mindset. Part of the interrogator’s task is to decipher the mindset of the subject; to attempt, to their best ability, to simulate the mindset of the innocent and the guilty, and to make inferences about what might be factually true. This is a daunting task for sure, and one that demands carefully strategic thought. 

Some subjects of interrogation, of course, are entirely innocent. It is a fundamental operational and moral task of an interrogator to pose questions in such a manner that the innocent can be freed. That too is a challenge which involves careful strategic considerations from a psychological point of view. 

However, some suspects are certainly not without guilt, and have motives and/or information to conceal. If a suspect deliberately conceals information or is even fully deceptive, interrogators need a more potent instrument than a plan—they need a strategy (to complicate matters further, they need a meta-strategy to decide what strategy to employ). That this is the case is the fundamental premise of the third wave of strategic interrogation. Interrogation can, in this view, be seen as a game of strategies between parties; a c

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hess game of sorts, where understanding of the suspects’ psychological mindset is crucial and determines the success of the moves. 

Modern thinking on interrogation recognizes the complexity of the interrogation space, including its strategic components. New science on effective questioning confirms fundamentally recognized strategies drawn from the literature and data on strategies in war. The most ripe scholarship on the psychology of strategy comes from Barton Whaley, a noted American scholar of warfare. Oddly, his work has been neglected by psychological science. Whaley strongly emphasizes the psychology of counter-deception, or what he calls turn-abouts or double-crosses, along with surprise as key elements of success in game-like scenarios. Whaley’s basic argument, and the one I propose here regarding strategies needed when motives collide, is that wits are overlooked in favor of psychological force. This is analogous to the state of affairs in interrogation. Problematically, in interrogation, brute force might have psychological appeal in that it satisfies a desire for retribution. In the movies, force always seems to work on our enemies, but in real life, not so much. 

On the psychology of interrogation, science converges on the notion that mindful strategy and careful pondering of counter-strategies achieves better results in distinguishing between true and false statements. What does mindful mean? At its core, it means prudent, fact-based evaluations of the likely mental states and strategies of others. Further, science shows that information may be elicited by the use of strategic interrogation techniques, sometimes without the subject knowing that they have provided crucial pieces of the investigative puzzle.

The Price of Power

We should never forget the price of brute force in interrogations,from the prison cell to the White House. One is the failure of political leaders to critically examine the true effectiveness of brute force interrogation tactics, and, more importantly, to hold accountable those who are responsible, the absence of which has allowed the injustices at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere to continue. Brute force tactics not only affect the victims, it damages the perpetrators and has corrosive effects on the systems in which they are applied. But to the extent that society demands sound, ethical, and effective interrogation practices, there is hope: We now know that mindful interrogation techniques are conceptually sound, and fare far better than techniques based either on fear or the simplistic notion that interrogation involves no considerations beyond those encountered when interviewing victims or witnesses. The future of effective interrogation is dependent on the extent to which we take the issue seriously, confront the ethical challenges head on, and invest effort in constructing, refining and implementing truly effective techniques. Effective, humane interrogation is too important to ignore; not only democratic values are at stake but human rights, and consequently, human lives. 

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Dr. Maria Hartwig is Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Director & Co-Founder, Project Aletheia, a platform aimed at bridging the gap between the science and practice of interrogation. She is an internationally recognized expert on deception, counter-deception, and interviewing and interrogation strategy.