The Scientists Trying to End Torture

A collection of research has been published to improve interrogation techniques and outline ethical best practices for the US government.

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Dec 12 2014, 2:40pm

​Image: ​Logan Ingalls/Flickr

​When the Central Intelligence Agency was developing its enhanced interrogation techniques or E.I.T.—torture acts including water​boarding and rectal fe​eding—there was no research showing they would be effective. Unfortunately for those who were opposed to the practices, there was no research to the contrary, either.

In fact, until dozens of researchers published a stack of studies in a special issu​e of Applied Cognitive Psychology last month, there had been a serious lack of research into interrogation techniques for the past 50 years. Their research supports the notion that E.I.T. is not effective. According to one interrogation expert, the previous dearth of scientific understanding is what enabled two psychologists to overrule people with decades of experience in the industry and orchestrate a system of interrogation used on terrorist suspects after 9/11 that the Senate Intelligence Committee has now condemned as tort​ure.

Mark Fallon worked as a government interrogator for more than 30 years at multiple agencies including the Department of Homeland Security. After 9/11, he was appointed as the deputy commander and special agent in charge of a Department of Defense group tasked with developing programs for gaining intelligence.

His years of experience had taught him the best strategies for interrogation were based in rapport building. When the two psychologists who would eventually become the architects of the E.I.T. program—widely identifi​ed as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, though the CIA has not confirmed their names—offered him advice in developing more abusive strategies, he brushed them off.

"I never gave it a second thought because my experience told me that was an absolutely ludicrous way to do things," Fallon, who now runs a security​ consulting firm, told me.

Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, 2005. Image: ​Wikimedia Commons

It's rep​orted Mitchell and Jessen devised the brutal tactics by reverse-engineering the knowledge they had from the US Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, which trains troops for potential torture they might face if captured, as well as other survival skills.

Neither psychologist had first-hand experience with interrogation or particular knowledge of Al-Qaeda—though Mitchell told Vice N​ews he takes issue with the idea that he was unqualified to consult. So how did these men get a $180-​million contract from the CIA to develop the interrogation techniques when many other experts were ignored?

"The question that is yet answered is: did the CIA find the psychologists or did the psychologists find them?" Fallon said.

"The CIA did have a corps of some people who did interrogations, but that is not who they turned to. They had behavioral scientists, operational psychologists within the CIA who knew about interrogations. I had worked with them. They didn't turn to them."

Fallon said there were people within the CIA who objected to the techniques, and that he himself opposed the practices while working at Guantanamo Bay. But without scientific data to point to, he said, they weren't able to convince leaders that rapport-building techniques would be more effective.

This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 500-page su​mmary of its investigation into the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques. The committee's report concluded the techniques were torture, in violation of human rights, and were "not effective."

But there are those who believe the torture of prisoners yielded important information. On Thursday, CIA director John O. Brennan held a ​press conference where he said some detainees who were subjected to the E.I.T. provided information that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden. But he admitted it's not clear this information was a result of the E.I.T. or if it could have been extracted using other methods.

We can not go down this road again.

He also said some of the tactics used were "abhorrent" and he supports President Obama's decision to prohibit use of E.I.T. going forward.

In 2009, the president created a task force to seek out more effective and ethical means of extracting information from suspects. This team quickly determined there was a need for scientific research to back up their personal knowledge and they established the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group research project, chaired by Fallon. They enlisted scientists and experts around the globe to investigate interrogation techniques and determine the most effective ways to get information.

Much of that research has now been published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology special issue and it backs up the first-hand experience of many interrogation veterans. One study interviewed dozens ​of highly-experienced military and intelligence interrogators, who indicated "excellent interpersonal skills on the part of an interrogator, an emphasis on rapport and relationship-building techniques, and the assistance of well-prepared interpreters and analysts are key components of a successful interrogation."

Another tested different interroga​tion approaches, concluding that a positive emotional tactic (saying things like "I'm sure we can work this out") and fostering a relationship with the detainee was "more likely to influence information elicitation," than a negative, emotional tactic (as in "you're going to regret this.")

Despite the information supporters say prisoners subjected to E.I.T. provided, Fallon said he still wonders what intelligence the CIA might have missed by not using tried-and-true methods. The new scientific research can now inform interrogation planning for everyone from local police departments to the government's highest-level defense bodies. And professionals can back up their personal experience with hard data.

"That's why the research, to me, is so important," Fallon said. "Because we can not go down this road again."