How Interrogation Tactics Have Changed ; A Review of CIA and Military Manuals from Several Decades Show Techniques Ranging from Low-Pressure to Coercive

By Peter Grier and Faye Bowers writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

How Interrogation Tactics Have Changed ; A Review of CIA and Military Manuals from Several Decades Show Techniques Ranging from Low-Pressure to Coercive


Peter Grier and Faye Bowers writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The prisoner seemed to be a Viet Cong officer of some sort, and he was basically just laughing at his American captors. He didn't even bother to make his lies consistent. His story changed once. Then twice. Three times.

That's the way the Army interrogator remembers it, anyway. His job as a US officer was to try to elicit useful information from POWs. But guidelines for his actions were rigid - the most he was allowed to do was shout.

So the interrogator tried patience. He waited. And waited. Then he threw the man a pack of cigarettes and said that if he didn't give up something the Americans would be forced to turn him over to the South Vietnamese police.

The man talked. It turned out he was a province chief.

"The point is, you get better results from being relatively humane to [prisoners], rather than beating on them," says the interrogator today, who asked to remain anonymous due to continuing work with US intelligence.

That may be so - but it is also likely to be only part of the story. Interrogation is a complicated process in which two people knock against each other under tense conditions. According to past and present US training manuals, loosening a prisoner's tongue requires careful planning, methodical implementation - and, at times, the inspiration of an artist.

How much of the abuse of Iraqi detainees was related to interrogations remains unclear, but the controversy has brought this process under a spotlight - and shown, graphically, what can happen when it goes wrong. An Army field manual on intelligence interrogation quotes Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "In no other profession are the penalties for employing untrained personnel so appalling or so irrevocable as in the military."

US military scientists have studied interrogation methods for decades, according to documents from the library of a retired high- ranking officer made available to the Monitor.

Three generations of CIA and military interrogation manuals show how methods have evolved and been refined. After World War II, personnel pored over the testimony of Hanns Joachim Scharff, a genial German interrogator who questioned every downed US fighter pilot and was famous for his use of props meant to put prisoners at ease. During the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, they weighed the effectiveness of less-savory psychological methods characterized in the press as "brainwashing."

Coercive techniques

Through much of the cold war, US interrogators trained allies in Latin America and elsewhere in the use of humiliation, nakedness, physical discomfort, and other harsh coercive techniques.

Sensory deprivation in dark, sound-proofed cells can deeply affect an interrogee, said the CIA's notorious Vietnam-era KUBARK interrogation manual. "An environment still more subject to control, such as water-tank or iron lung, is even more effective," it stated.

Officially this approach was abandoned following congressional hearings in the mid-1980s. However, even training manuals that predate this change emphasized that the most important quality for an interrogator was not necessarily intimidation. The chief qualification for a questioner is "a genuine insight into the subject's character and motives," concludes the CIA's 1983 Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual.

The first rule of successful interrogation is to set the mood, according to military and CIA manuals. …

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