United States Launches Humane Torture Program

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: So interrogations by US authorities are now done under the banner of a program called HIG, or HIG, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. Research results from HIG could affect not only how terror suspects are interrogated but also how police in Australia and elsewhere conduct other criminal interviews. To explain this further I was joined by the chief researcher for the HIG program, Iowa University psychology professor Dr Christian Meissner.

Christian Meissner, thanks for joining us.


TONY JONES: Now, how do you know that humane interrogation techniques work? Do you have examples where suspected terrorists, for example, have rolled over and given valuable information with these kind of techniques?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: Well thank you for having me. Our research program over the past six or seven years has focused on developing humane, ethical, effective methods of interviewing and interrogation and really seeking to turn the prevailing model of accusatorial tactics and the rhetoric certainly behind torture by turning to science and understanding what factors lead an individual to provide information and how can one develop rapport? What does rapport mean, how can one develop it and how can one elicit information in that particular context? And over the past six or seven years we’ve had the opportunity to work with scholars all over the world to conduct this research, both laboratory research and field research, looking at real interrogations that are conducted and trying to identify what works, developing new methods and not only testing them in controlled settings, but also working with training facilities and law enforcement agencies to begin to take them out of the lab and out of controlled settings and into the field and assess their effectiveness or efficacy under real world conditions. And most recently, just getting to your question, we’ve had the opportunity to work with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to conduct a systematic training evaluation in which we trained more than 100 of their investigators over the course of one week and then began to assess the use of those science-based techniques in real cases. And in each of those evaluations, we’re looking at not only the use of the techniques, but also the key outcomes, degree of cooperation, information, whether they provide critical intelligence or a confession or admission. And that data, while it’s still being coded, we reported on it recently that those methods, those science-based methods are not only being used, but they’re significantly improving collection abilities of investigators.

TONY JONES: Now your research was funded by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an elite team put together pretty much at the behest of President Obama in 2010 to question terror suspects quickly and to get information from them about accomplices and about other threats. Did you get access to the interrogations that were being done by the team or were you simply providing advice to the team on how to conduct interrogations?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: The Obama administration established the HIG as an operational entity, but it also created a mission to conduct research and to understand the translation of that research and science into effective training for the US Government. My team, my colleagues all around the world, had been working hard at developing that basic science and applied understanding of how these techniques should work, do work and can be implemented through training. And we work with the HIG on development of training materials and providing the science base and translating it for practitioners. It’s very important to understand though that the training and research base is quite independent of the operational base; that is, there’s a bit of a wall. The operation side of the house is classified. The deployments and the interrogations that are conducted by these teams we’re not privy to as scientists. Our advice and support kind of ends at the level of the training. But what I can tell you is that the methods that are being developed by the research team and trained with the support of the research team are being trained to the HIG’s interrogators, these are lead interrogators, and we know that these techniques are being used on these deployments successfully.

TONY JONES: So in the – obviously they’re operating in the kind of real world of terror suspects and we just had this recent series of terror attacks in Brussels and it emerged that after having captured the ISIS controller of the terror cell, Salah Abdeslam, he was given a lawyer, he was told of his right to remain silent, no-one questioned him at all for 24 hours. When they did question him, it was only for two hours and they didn’t ask him then the critical questions about whether there were further plans for other attacks or who his accomplices might be or any of the things you might regard as critical questions. Now, do you think – what would you say is the appropriate way to deal with someone like that at the critical point where you capture them, because four days later the attacks happened in Brussels, so you had a kind of ticking time bomb scenario?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: Of course it’s very important to collect intelligence and information as quickly as one can. At the same time it’s important that the conditions are ripe for collecting that information. And as I understand it in this particular case, the individual had undergone surgery and so there may have been some delays in really his executive function and cognitive abilities to be able to provide information coming out of surgery. I always hesitate to second guess interrogation professionals, but I do think the methods that are being developed in this scientific effort are very useful in this very situation, that it’s – we’ve identified quick and effective ways to develop rapport and effective ways of eliciting information from a cooperative subject outside of a context of anxiety, stress, torture or any of those issues. And in fact eliciting information in this way has a corollary benefit. It allows intelligence investigators to collect information and to assess its credibility with more fidelity.

TONY JONES: How big a factor has popular culture been in this whole torture debate? For example, we know the TV series 24 in which the fictional agent Jack Bauer tortures people horrifically in these kind of ticking time bomb situations. These were watched avidly by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and evidently they were quite influenced by this.

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: Certainly, Hollywood and TV dramas have a significant impact on the lay audience’s beliefs and even in this case interrogation professionals’ beliefs about the efficacy of these methods. I think there was a lot more going on that led of course to the use of these techniques in various places, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and others, including social pressures by the administration and by authorities, including a sense of retribution. Research has shown that in fact these methods are more likely to be applied when people are seeking retribution or seeking punishment. And they’re also more likely to be applied in a context in which I dehumanise the other group and I see them as a significant outgroup or a threat to me. I think there are a number of social forces, psychological forces at play here. Certainly, popular media and TV play a role in that.

TONY JONES: So, looking at the other side of the coin then from what you’re trying to do, are there examples where coercive or enhanced interrogation techniques actually led to false intelligence, false evidence?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: This is what the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has offered us, at least in the executive summary form: an analysis of 20 cases in which it was alleged that information was gained by the use of these techniques and the Senate identifying and assessing that those claims were actually unfounded. In fact, it’s of course very difficult to conduct any systematic research on torture. In fact, it’s unethical and unlawful for our program or me as a psychologist or researcher to do that. How can we learn about the effectiveness, the purported effectiveness of torture? Well we can learn through historical analyses and through systematic analyses such as the Senate report. We can also learn by looking at history and how torture was used historically, largely as a method for propaganda, for coercing statements from prisoners of war. And we can also learn through interviews with interrogation professionals about their experiences and also interviews with individuals’ victims who were tortured, who were subject to these techniques.

TONY JONES: Now one of the scariest things to have come out of your research: it’s just not just about torture, but interrogation techniques which use the accusatorial approach, especially by police. They can elicit false confessions and have done so, false confessions from innocent people.

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: Correct. You know, here in the United States, the accusatorial model has been the primary model that law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel have been trained to use. Over the years this model has actually developed through what we call customary knowledge; that is, it’s not a function of any scientific model or evidence that it’s effective, but it was passed on from investigator to investigator and developed over time. Unfortunately, these methods can be very powerful, but powerful – but they lack surgical precision; that is to say, they lead the guilty and the innocent to confess alike. Here in the United States we’ve had more than 325 wrongful fiction convictions that have been overturned by DNA, and of those, about 30 per cent involved false confessions or false admissions. We’ve reached certainly a critical point at which our country needs to move towards an ethical, humane and effective alternative to interview and interrogation.

TONY JONES: OK, so your humane method focuses on letting the subject tell the story, building a narrative, subtle nudges onto difficult areas, building rapport and empathy – these things you’ve already mentioned. How do your humane interrogators deal with, for example, a terror suspect in a critical situation who simply refuses to cooperate and say anything?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: I think it’s critically important to understand the limits of any method. And what we know from years of research now is that these methods are not a silver bullet. They are not going to lead to a confession or admission in every case. Having said that, let’s take the terrorist ideologue situation case in point here. It’s important to remember that these individuals are in many ways not – shown not to be psychotic or deranged or delusional, but in fact have their full capacities and are acting, at least to their reality, as rational actors. In many cases, ideologues are willing to talk. In fact they’re looking for a platform from which to talk and individuals to talk to. And interrogation professionals that I’ve worked with suggest that in fact that’s what they offer them. They offer them an opportunity and a context within which to engage. And by developing that conversational rapport and by developing trust and mutual respect, a dialogue begins to open within which the interrogator can begin to subtly influence the subject towards providing information. My favourite way to talk about this is for your viewers to think about who would they tell their deepest, darkest secret? A secret in which they engaged in a behaviour that they’re ashamed of, a secret that might lead others to judge them and see them in a very different light, a secret that they wouldn’t want to tell anyone. Who would they tell that secret to? Somebody who comes into the room and tortures them, abuses them, isolates them, manipulates them, confronts them, makes them feel uncomfortable, makes them feel anxious? Or somebody who took the time to get to know who they were, who took an interest in them, who may have disclosed some things about themselves, who showed a real interest in their situation and who over time developed a relationship with them? It’s this case that in fact we seek to inform.

TONY JONES: OK, we are nearly out of time and I’ve got to ask you this: are you worried that all the work you’ve been doing, as I said before, at the behest of the Obama administration could be completely thrown out the window if Donald Trump were ever to become President, bearing in mind that he supports a return to waterboarding and something worse than waterboarding?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: I’m optimistic that the work that we’ve done with the interrogation profession community, with the training communities, with the various law enforcement agencies and entities within the US Government and all around the world will begin to influence higher administration officials. Certainly I have concerns about the rhetoric that Trump and others are using. Certainly I have concerns when politics doesn’t adhere to facts and doesn’t consider the science and the scientific basis upon which we should be making decisions. I’m hopeful that reason and science and discussions will play out. I’m optimistic that we have an opportunity to really change the culture here in the United States and the effectiveness of interrogation tactics and approaches here in the US and around the world.

TONY JONES: Now the CIA director said the military could deny unlawful orders to torture and kill civilians. Trump in turn turned around and said, “They won’t refuse, they’re not going to refuse,” implying he could actually change the law, set his own orders and change the – what would happen, do you think, if he did that?

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: I think there are wonderful intelligence professionals and interrogation professionals that would stand up to any administration or orders that were unlawful. I think it unlikely that we would see unlawful actions on the part of our professionals in that particular case and I’m again just hopeful that we don’t go down that road here in the United States.

TONY JONES: Christian Meissner, we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to us on Lateline.

CHRISTIAN MEISSNER: Thank you very much.


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