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​A Former CIA Officer Explains how to Apply Interrogation Techniques to Everyday Life

We spoke to an Ex-CIA operative about torture, coercion, and how to spot when someone is lying to you.
April 23, 2015, 9:40pm

Activists performing a guerrilla theater piece. Photo via Flickr user Brooke Anderson.

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Get the Truth, a new book by three former CIA officers, explains how to apply counterterrorist interrogation techniques to everyday life, from figuring out if a colleague has lifted some cash from your wallet to getting the best deal on a used vehicle. But before you get ideas about waterboarding the guy who runs the car lot down the street, know that authors Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero believe in "non-adversarial" techniques—torture, they figure, just doesn't work.

As protests grow across Canada against antiterrorism measure Bill C-51, the bill's supporters might do well to read Get the Truth. It maintains the best way to elicit confessions is by displaying empathy with subjects, and to keep them in "short-term thinking" mode, where the consequences of revealing deception seem to dissipate. The authors acknowledge the torture overseen by their former agency, as revealed in books such as Ali H. Soufan's Black Banners—which they take up directly—and in Guantànamo Diary, published in January by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who remains in detention after 12 years at the US base without ever having been charged with a crime.

Houston, a 25-year CIA veteran investigator and polygraph examiner, now runs the behaviour analysis firm QVerity, which has trained Ontario Provincial Police officers on the detection of deception, something covered in the authors' previous book, Spy the Lie. I spoke with him on the phone from his North Carolina home, and while he danced around certain subjects—"I can't comment on the agency's approaches to things," he told me. "Sources and methods are dangerous grounds"—he offered assurance that successful interrogation can and should be carried out while adhering to fundamental principles of justice—a phrase that needs no air quotes.

VICE: The foreword opens with the image of a high-value detainee possibly involved in orchestrating the September 11 attacks, and it mentions that the book should answer the question of "what approach and techniques give you the best possible chance of succeeding when you walk through the door" to talk to this person. Why did you choose to frame the book in that way?
Philip Houston: Well, [here's] the gorilla in the room whenever it comes to the concept of getting to the truth or interrogation: Is the approach the agency took [after 9/11] the right approach? And we were trying to set up a mindset of let's look forward. What might be the best approach? And not just there, but for anyone in general. If you could apply these techniques in that kind of a mode, where on Earth couldn't you use them?

InGet the Truth, you write about convincing the person you're interviewing to believe that you share certain things in common—the interrogation equivalent of little white lies. In Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi mentions an interrogator's telling him, "If you cooperate with me, I am personally going to escort you to the airport." Would a lie like that be an example of what you've cited as a problem—making a promise that you can't keep?
That's correct. The types of deception we advocate are more along the lines of, if I'm talking to you, and we're trying to find your missing daughter, and you say, "I dismembered my daughter and buried her in the backyard." "OK, I understand. Let's talk about that. Those things happen." I cognitively understand that horrible things happen, but if you ask me to understand the psychology of why a dad would do that to their child, I can't give you a logical explanation. We are minimizing and managing our own reactions, which means we're hiding what we're really feeling inside.

On the other hand, Slahi also mentions someone saying that his mother would be gang-raped if he didn't offer up what the interrogator considered to be the truth. So that would be the opposite—using a threat, rather than a promise, that has no basis in reality.
More often than not, when you start to make wild threats, if you're an interrogator, all you're really doing is demonstrating to the individual across from you that you are frustrated and impatient, and their takeaway is that if they can hold out a little bit longer, they've got a shot at winning.

Slahi asks, "Has there ever, in recorded history, been an interrogation that has gone on day-in and day-out for more than six years? There's nothing an interrogator could say to me that would be new. I've heard every variation." In extreme cases, could one reach a point where any kind of interrogation isn't useful anymore?
There are situations in the intelligence business or law enforcement where, when it comes to human interaction, our tools are less than perfect. No techniques will work 100 percent of the time. When you talk about coercive [interrogation]—if I believe that you stole my car, so I decide I'm going to beat it out of you—what is the metric I use to tell me when I should stop beating? In general, if we get to the point that we resort to coercion, we believe we already know the answer, and so the coercion continues until the person provides that answer.

Because that's the only way it will stop.
Exactly. So at that point, what has been accomplished? And we're stuck with the situation, "Now we have you admitting this, but is it true?" A lie is a lie, so we really haven't made much progress. It sounds so logical to take that approach, but there's a flaw in the logic, and if you've not been an interrogator, it's hard to really appreciate how significant that flaw is.

Canada's proposed Bill C-51 gives a peace officer or someone in an intelligence service the ability to take measures to reduce a threat as long as "the Service shall not… cause, intentionally or by criminal negligence, death or bodily harm to an individual" or pervert of the course of justice, or "violate the sexual integrity of an individual."
[Our] techniques are tailor-made for the situation that you just described.

Many people are concerned that these stipulations don't go far enough. Bodily harm is defined in our criminal code as "any hurt or injury to a person that interferes with the health or comfort of the person that is more than merely transient or trifling in nature," and in theory the bill leaves room for interrogators to carry out psychological torture, or even waterboarding if it's considered a transiently harmful operation. Would it be helpful in general for interrogators if things like psychological torture and waterboarding were explicitly outlawed?
The interrogator has to adapt to whatever conditions he or she inherits when they step in the room to sit down with the individual. And you will find [with] the best interrogators, at least for part of their engagement, the focus of the individual is on the interrogator, and vice versa, and all of the other surroundings and accoutrements of detention are minimized.

So in other words, the person is not aware of any discomfort or in pain.
Exactly: You're not in discomfort; you're not in pain. Furthermore, you realize you're not being mistreated. And sometimes in a true law enforcement or custodial situation, that has a certain amount of shock value unto itself, and the appeal for the individual can be very powerful.

We have our perceptions or expectations when we walk in the room; so does the person who's going to be interrogated, and included are everything they've seen on TV, everything they've seen in the movies, everything they've read in books, in newspapers … Some would argue that escalates the fear, and therefore, that works to the advantage of the interrogator. For the most part, we're not there trying to escalate fear. We're going to minimize their fear, at least on a short-term basis. There are many factors why someone would confess to you. There's not an over-reliance on a single factor, because that may not be sufficient, or it may work too well—i.e., the person is all of a sudden telling us everything we want to hear: "Yes, I've walked on the moon."

You said "for the most part" you're not there to escalate fear. Would there be some cases in which you would be there to escalate fear?
Well, not in the manner that you're thinking. We capitalize on certain psychological techniques that aren't related to personal threat. Let's say for example you walk in the office tomorrow, and one of your co-workers comes running up to you and says, "The boss wants to see you right away." … Do you immediately think, "Today's a great day. I'm going to get promoted"? Probably that's not our thought process. The message you have received has planted what behaviorists would term a "mind virus."

We don't know whether or not that would create fear or uncertainty—we don't know where that virus is going in your mind. However, it amplifies the deceptive behaviors that people would otherwise exhibit. It's fear that's self-inflicted.

Although it's set off by a situation outside of that person.
Right. Mind viruses can be misused, so if you're in custody and I walk in, and all of a sudden I pull out a Glock 9mm and set it on top of the desk, that's the mind virus, right? But that's not the way to do it. That's the wrong message. We believe that's counterproductive. There are officer safety issues. If the guy gets to the gun faster than you, you're in trouble! [laughs]

Moving back to Bill C-51 and the issue of bodily harm, would you feel in any way hamstrung if you were working in a situation where things such as psychological torture and waterboarding were legislated as being off the table?
Not at all.

There's an argument on one side that we should not hamper the powers of our security agency, but in your estimation, if you were conducting an interrogation, having more restrictions along those lines wouldn't be a problem.
Yeah. The one exception, and I hesitate to even mention it because it is such a far-fetched scenario, might be where you had a true smoking gun. If we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone has a nuclear device in downtown Toronto that's going to go off within a defined period of time, and we've tried to talk to you and you're not cooperating, is there a point where for the greater good, law enforcement or some regulatory body should take more severe action? That's a question that we debate all the time.

In the end, if there should be stronger legislation against torture than C-51 affords, do you believe there should be loopholes that can be used if there is a smoking gun? How would one actually implement any kind of legislation that would leave room for that while meaningfully restricting torture in other situations?
It's a fair question, but I think the answer would probably vary depending on whether or not you're in the city where the bomb is. [laughs] I don't mean to say that in a flippant manner; from a psychological standpoint, it would probably vary, and I really don't know how to resolve that difference of opinion. And we just don't see these smoking guns, because keep in mind: a really critical element of that scenario I'm painting is that we have irrefutable evidence that you have the information we're trying to get. Not [as in] Ron Suskind's book The One Percent [Doctrine—where he claimed that Dick Cheney, after 9/11, asserted that "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty"].

Have you thought of your book being read by people who have something to hide, as a handbook on how to actually not give in to interrogators?
We have, and our experience has shown us, you can read all the books you want, but … Think about how long it would take to become an outstanding interrogator. In order to be able to counteract that, it's going to take a lot of effort practicing and figuring out how you're going to avoid confession. Think about it this way: we often joke and refer to ourselves as eight-by-ten condominium salesmen—you know the condominiums that have bars on the windows? That's tough real estate to sell. Logic suggests that we should be broke, but we sell those every day.