An interesting interview of a veteran Air Force interrogator, Steven Kleinman, by Newsweek writer Dan Ephron is available on the Newsweek website.
Portions of the interview are excerpted below. But before turning to the interview, our readers should be alerted to several situationist themes that the interview underscores. Most obviously, the interview picks up on issues raised by Situationist Contributor Philip Zimbardo, who’s series “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes” (Part I, Part II), and new book “The Lucifer Effect,” are devoted significantly to situational forces influencing interrogation and torture. But there are still other themes that the interview usefully highlights.
First, according to Kleinman, the “art of interrogation” is or should be based on the art of persuasion. Apple doesn’t sell iPods through coercion. Second, people’s behavior varies by situation in ways that would surprise us – and a key to effective interrogation is in understanding and altering the situation of those being interrogated. Third, coercion is often counterproductive – a theme that social psychologists, such as Situationist Contributor Tom Tyler, have discovered in their research on the causes and effects of legitimacy. Tyler has summarized that research briefly in the following abstract:
Legitimacy is a psychological property of an authority, institution, or social arrangement that leads those connected to it to believe that it is appropriate, proper, and just. Because of legitimacy, people feel that they ought to defer to decisions and rules, following them voluntarily out of obligation rather than out of fear of punishment or anticipation of reward. Being legitimate is important to the success of authorities, institutions, and institutional arrangements since it is difficult to exert influence over others based solely upon the possession and use of power. Being able to gain voluntary acquiescence from most people, most of the time, due to their sense of obligation increases effectiveness during periods of scarcity, crisis, and conflict. The concept of legitimacy has a long history within social thought and social psychology, and it has emerged as increasingly important within recent research on the dynamics of political, legal, and social systems.
The insights of social psychology should not have us worried just about the inefficacy of current interrogation practices of the U.S. It should also, in our view, raise serious questions about the seemingly legitimate practices of most of our “political, legal, and social systems,” including everyday marketing practices, although that topic is too big to bite off in this post.
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For two years now, a group of experts on interrogation has been helping intelligence agencies formulate new rules for grilling terrorism suspects. Comprising psychologists and other specialists, the group has completed one long report and is working on another. Both volumes describe the techniques the United States has used on Iraqi and Al Qaeda suspects since the attacks of September 11, 2001, as outdated and often ineffective. Steven Kleinman is one of the study’s contributors. A former Air Force interrogator and trainer, Kleinman grilled prisoners in several conflicts, including the current war in Iraq. While doing graduate work in the late 1990s, he researched the interrogation of senior Nazi officials by Americans during World War II. Kleinman spoke recently to NEWSWEEK’s Dan Ephron.
[Kleinman was asked about how “interrogations today differ from the World War II programs you studied” and he explained that there was an elaborate process of determining who was interrogating and who did the interrogating. For instance, the interrogators] “were not 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds. These were people who came off the college campus as professors, as lawyers, successful business people. They had all traveled overseas, spoke flawless German, understood the culture, the history of the European continent, just some really bright people—not pure military folks, but people who had responded to the call.”
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The standard was for every hour spent interrogating, the interrogator and his team would spend four to six hours in preparation. So they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and exactly how they were going to go about it. And they were reasonably patient. The “how” was presented to them in a series of lectures by a gentleman named Sanford Griffith, who had been an army interrogator in World War I and had worked in the advertising industry in the interwar years, studying psychology and marketing and persuasion. And so he delivered this incredible series of lectures.
What was his philosophy?
No. 1, he said, you bait the hook to catch the fish, meaning you have to understand, really truly understand, what that POW is all about—what their interests are, what their hopes, their fears, their desires, their interests. And that in itself will help you find a way to build either a rapport with them or some kind of working relationship. Then technically, if you encounter resistance …then you deal with it. You just literally put it to sleep. If they have complaints, you address them; if they have—whatever it is, you either address it, or you make it appear that you are in the process of addressing it . . . .
I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What kind of resistance, and how would you address it?
Well let’s say, for instance, all [somebody] wants to do is complain about their treatment. This is how I adapted it: somebody would complain about their treatment. And I would say, “OK, what do you mean?” And maybe they’d say they needed another blanket—and that’s really all they wanted to focus on. … I would go way past that, I would say, well OK, is that all? Is there something else? Are there too many people in your cell, is the food [OK]? We can’t offer you too much, but are you getting enough of this? And just go on and on and on until they’re finally almost embarrassed because they can’t think of anything more. And I find that’s a really effective way of exhausting a certain resistance posture, because the opposite just never works; if you just keep trying to ignore it, or—this is the common route for many young interrogators—“Wait a second, I’m the interrogator, I’ll be asking the questions.” If you’re an interrogator in a cell, or in an interrogation booth with a prisoner, and you have to remind the source that you’re the interrogator, you’ve already lost.
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Was there any use in this World War II program of what are now called coercive forms of interrogation?
Absolutely not. That [would] only stiffen someone’s resolve. You immediately create an adversarial relationship and they’re going to fight tooth and nail to resist. Interrogators and people who manage interrogation programs need to understand the whole concept of the laws of war. At some point even this war will come to an end, and nations will have to live together and trade together and live side by side. So you have certain standards of what you will or will not do so that you don’t have these lingering animosities. When you treat people in a coercive fashion, they’re going to remember that. Just think about how many Americans still remember, 60 years later, how the Japanese treated allied POWs during World War II.
But maybe you’re comparing apples and oranges? In WWII we were dealing with one kind of enemy, maybe less resolved, less extreme ideologically, less willing to die for the cause. Can you really pry open Islamic militants by being friendly and establishing a rapport?
I think it’s important to remember the depths of Nazi fanaticism during World War II. . . . [T]he Nazi military forces were well known for saying they would rather die before capture, that death would be glorious in the service of the Reich. There are some very striking parallels. Ultimately, though, once people are in the interrogation room, so much of what happens is counterintuitive. How people act in other circumstances, how they respond in their daily life is really no indicator of how they’ll respond in that room. Because No. 1, from the moment of capture they’re cut off from all the information that’s available to the average adult. They don’t know what’s going on in the outside world other than what the interrogator shares with them. It’s almost like a parallel universe where the rules are provided by the interrogator.
You mentioned establishing a rapport. How do you leverage that rapport for information?
One of the challenges for the interrogators is to be able to literally have a certain degree of empathy, sympathetic common sense. You don’t fall in love with these people. You realize you’re not there as some sort of humanitarian effort. But if you’re unwilling and unable to let some of these people touch you in a way, you won’t be effective. Some of these people we were interrogating when I was in Iraq were brought up under Saddam always looking over their shoulders. Maybe their family members had been tortured by Saddam’s regime, all sorts of horrible things that you and I have never experienced. You have to let that kind of touch you—at least to the point where you can understand why this person acts as they do. What is it that they might want? How can you relate to them in a way that will make them feel comfortable talking to you?
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You mentioned that interrogators also have something to learn from the advertising industry. What would that be?
There’s a book called “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Dr. [Robert] Cialdini. The marketing industry has used this extensively. He’s identified approximately six principles of persuasion, such things as scarcity—things that are suddenly unavailable to us, we have more interest in attaining. Likeability—how difficult it is to say no to someone you really like. Reciprocity—you give me something and there’s something hardwired in our brain that makes me want to give you something back. It’s just fascinating how you can apply those to interrogations. They’re persuasive and they’re cross-cultural in most cases. The authority principle, you see on commercials—where they have someone who appears to be a doctor talking about some kind of pharmaceutical. Whether he’s a doctor or not, people respond. I use the same thing in terms of information dominance. I present myself as knowing even more about a topic than my source does, which make him more likely to comply with my questions ‘cause they have the sense that this authority figure knows more.
What about deception? Is there room for deception in the interrogation room?
In a word, yes. All war is based on deception. If I want to establish a rapport with someone—what I call an operational accord, where we find some reason to work together—I find it [so] much easier if someone is a husband and father of three children, for example, that I tell him I have that same family experience, whether I do or I don’t. In the military setting, I may adjust my rank so that I’m closer to his.
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When Iraqis learn people had been abused, those who supported the occupation will shift to neutral, those who had been neutral will shift to supporting the insurgency and those who supported the insurgency will become insurgents. We all like to be right, but in this case I wish I had been wrong. Abu Ghraib has probably been the most effective recruiting campaign that the insurgency and even Al Qaeda at large had ever experienced.
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Then how is it not common knowledge that coercion will always be counterintuitive?
In America, just about everyone has seen an interrogation on television and in movies and they think they understand it. It seems so simple and it’s wrapped up in a 30-minute episode. And that, honestly, has influenced sometimes some very senior policymakers in that they think they get it, they understand it. They don’t take that same position with something like signals intelligence or imagery intelligence. … The debate about the use of coercion is always the moral and legal elements of it and even those who are against it seem to accept as a given that it shouldn’t be used but obviously it would work. There’s no science behind that. There’s no evidence it works. It’s purely anecdotal.
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For the complete Newsweek interview, click here. To listen to an NPR interview of Steven Kleinman, click here. For the full report by the National Defense Intelligence College, titled “Educing Information,” click here. For an article about the report, click here. For an article on how there has been a rise in torture scenes in the media, click here. For Bill O’Reilly’s take on the effect of coercive interrogation techniques, view the video below.