Ever since the beginning, the United States Army has relied on the skills of individuals to help steer the course of the conflict toward a more favorable outcome. General George Washington used a network of spies and informants to keep tabs on the British forces in order to know when and where to strike when conditions were in the Continental Army’s favor. But more often than not, the use of military intelligence has often been overlooked in the entirety of any conflict, particularly when it comes to the use of HUMINT gathering. It doesn’t help that it is only as useful as the individual giving and receiving it. Unlike other military intelligence gathering techniques, it is arguable the most susceptible to impressions, perceptions, memories, and natural human bias. But HUMINT collections can acquire information not found by any other methods, so clearly there is still a need for it in today’s modern world. Which brings us to the often overlooked, but essential process of military interrogation.
Qualities of a good interrogator
In part one of this series (found here), I go over the technical requirements to become a HUMINT Collector in the U.S. Army. But technical qualifications and real life qualities are different. What makes a good interrogator isn’t based on any specific socioeconomic, rank, ethnicity, race, gender, or even cultural upbringing. Even getting past the interrogation course at Fort Huachuca is not proof that you are a good interrogator. Qualities that help your everyday salesperson, bartender, or customer service rep can actually apply to Military interrogators. I break these qualities down to several specific ones, such as being able to─
- Engage in conversations. It sounds simple enough, but public speaking consistently ranks as one of America’s top personal fears. And being an interrogator requires you to engage with all sorts of different people in all kinds of different scenarios. This could be anywhere from “fishing” for answers in the middle of a crowded marketplaces, to engaging a recalcitrant detainee who had gunned down a NATO Soldier out on patrol. You will often do more than one formal interrogation during the course of the day, maybe even three or more. So to maintain a steady level of interest in conversations is a must. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert. Far from it. I have seen introverts conduct great interrogations and some extroverts conduct terrible ones. What matters is if you can effectively engage with others when the time comes. And during an interrogation you should─
- Be organized and have a good memory. You will be writing. I mean a lot. And after doing a three or four hour interrogation, after getting out and sitting down to write that oh so important information where Mr. Jihadigoboom’s network is located, there is nothing worse than staring down at your notes and realizing you really dropped the ball on organization and penmanship this time. Cripes, did he say the leader had gray beard with red hair and wore black robes or red beard with black hair and wore a gray robe? Good thing you have a good memory and─
- Attention to detail. Some of this will actually be beaten into you (rhetorically speaking) during the HUMINT Collector or CI course, because the method to answering those key Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIRs) require a systematic approach. If the person is describing a house, you should automatically be thinking “outside-in.” Almost everyone approaches a building from a distance and walks in through the entrance. When it comes to descriptions of a person, ask “top-down.” Most people, upon meeting someone new, will start with the face, move on to their hair, and then what they wearing, usually. I know some women will claim men tend to start low before going high, but I digress. In most cases, you will want to report everything from almost a first person perspective, so that it will just seem natural to the reader; or more importantly, the soldiers who are stacked by the entrance ready to conduct a night raid. And you should be able to do this every time, almost without even thinking about it. So once you get those questioning techniques down and the answers are flowing to you like water you should, at this point─
- Like to write and read. Or at least tolerate reading and writing. Which may seem “fair enough” but did I mention you will be doing a lot of writing? Pre-interrogation planning, note taking, post interrogation reports, reports answering PIRs, and everything else the Army requires. In addition, if you are an assigned leader, you will be doing a more reading, editing, and proofreading your soldiers’ plans and PIR reports. Because badly written reports have as much worth as no reports. I often joke we actually got Bin Laden’s exact location and route of escape the first week we invaded Afghanistan. But the report was so poorly written and labeled, no one in the DOD community knew what the hell it said. Finally, don’t be the guy/gal that leaves nothing useful or relevant for the next soldier to follow up just in case you can’t…or won’t for whatever reason. I have to admit, there are few times in my life I ever had to write as much as I did when I was doing interrogations. If you aren’t good at typing, start practicing. Which brings me to─
- Know the limits. Not just the obvious legal constraints imposed on you from your command or from a little city in Switzerland, but personal ones that may develop during the course of the interrogation. You aren’t going to have the same attitude when dealing with a willing source that walked in to your base, a refugee giving you reports about fighting they are fleeing from, or a detainee that was picked up after testing positive for explosives residue on his hand. It’s easy to fall into a one-size-fits-all tempo, especially if dealing with different scenarios during the course of a single day. Understand the difference between sympathy and empathy, and don’t ever confuse the two. Also, even in the few cases a detainee is giving you a torrid of pertinent information that can answer dozens of different intelligence requirements, it might be best to know when to take a break so that you can vet the information further. As well as ensuring the detainee does not tire himself out before you wrap up answer relevant questions. Because all of that requires the─
- Ability to maintain control. If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve just realized the detainee has been interrogating you for the last couple of hours, you might as well walk out of that room and hand it off to someone else. He’s either that good or you just screwed up that badly. But this goes beyond just situational control. Do you have a good “poker face?” Better develop one. Or at the very least, don’t wear your emotions on your sleeves. For example, let’s say you are trying to develop rapport with a detainee by talking about family life, and he inadvertently admits his older brother is the head accountant for the Taliban Shadow Governor of Helmand Province. What better way for him to shut down after you excitingly jump to your feet and yell “I knew your brother is a piece of crap! Tell me everything!” Unless you planned this response ahead of time because you knew he hates his brother for abusing him all his life. But in either scenario, you are still maintaining control, over yourself and the detainee. Don’t forget your interpreter either. If he or she is talking longer or shorter than you did, something is amiss and you need to make sure they are operating within their lane. Or if your interpreter is starting to argue with you with what he perceives is unjust detainee treatment or that he didn’t get his lunch break in time. In the middle of an interrogation, in front of a bemused detainee. Yes, I have seen or had this happen.
Like the act of interrogation itself, these aren’t a list of hard, concrete rules that ensure automatic success. But if you have these qualities, it will make the outcome that much more successful. Even if you are weak in some of these areas, you can still train yourself and improve upon these personal skill sets. In part three, we will discuss approaches, and the reality of applying these principles in actual interrogations.
- Culper Spy Ring, http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/culper-spy-ring/
- The Thing We Fear More Than Death, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death
- FM 2-22.3 U.S. Army Human Intelligence Collector Operations, Department of the Army, September 6, 2006, http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm2-22-3.pdf