The how-to of prisoner interrogation

Saturday, December 22, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A modern interrogation is psychology and head games, an effort to make an enemy prisoner volunteer what he knows.

Sometimes a simple offer of cigarettes to a deprived chain smoker will do the trick, say Army experts. Or play on prisoners' patriotism, or fears, or despair -- whatever it takes to establish rapport and get them talking.

"Most people want to talk," said Army 1st Sgt. Katrina Cobb, who trains Army intelligence personnel at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. "They want to tell their side."

As the United States and its allies begin to sort through and interrogate some of the 7,000 Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners in Afghanistan, they are asking questions whose answers could be critical to the war on terrorism.

Getting that out of some prisoners is a tall order. The FBI, the CIA and the military have interrogators in Afghanistan.

More 'conversations'

To get it, Army and other intelligence officials say techniques have evolved in recent years from adversarial interrogations to attempts at more cordial "conversations." More reliable information may come from a low-level but cooperative supply clerk, instead of an enemy commander who has no interest in talking.

That's not to say that some interrogations aren't long and grueling, but U.S. officials say they do not sanction torture, and insist that interrogators know there's a line they are not to cross.

To find a likely talker, interrogators screen the pool of prisoners for people who seem willing to open up.

Talk to their guards, says 1st Sgt. Anthony Novacek, another trainer at Fort Huachuca. Observe who is nervous, who is talkative, who is offering to help. When interrogating a prisoner, use any of a number of methods to get him to start talking: Puff up his pride, or give him a sense of hopelessness, or find out his fears.

"A lot of times, people come to us with their own fears," Novacek said. "You can play on their fears, allow them to continue being afraid. You don't threaten them. You play on their own natural fears. Everybody has them."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that drawing information out of senior terrorist leaders will take a long time because many of them are "skilled liars."

"They lie shamelessly," he said at a briefing this week.

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