The Behavioral Tactics the CIA Could Have Used Instead of Torture

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report reveals that the CIA ignored non-violent interrogation methods and went right for torture.

by Jordan Pearson
Dec 10 2014, 1:00pm

​Image: ​Krystian Olszanski/Flickr

The Central Intelligence Agency immediately opted to physically torture detainees despite being encouraged by other agencies to use non-coercive approaches based in behavioural science, according to a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) on the agency's interrogation practices released yesterday.

The CIA has claimed that interrogations routinely begin with a lighter touch and only escalate to torture when necessary. Former CIA director Michael Hayden is quoted in the report as saying, "We use the least coercive measures to create cooperation at a predictable, reliable, sustainable level. [...] Once the state of cooperation is created, we simply productively debrief the detainee."

But, the new report says, "detainees were frequently subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques immediately after being rendered to CIA custody," according to the agency's own records.

In other words, the CIA didn't try anything else before resorting to torture. There was no "good cop" in their routine—only bad.

During the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian citizen still in detention, FBI agents contacted CIA interrogators and "explained their rapport-building approaches to the CIA interrogation team and 'tried to explain that we have used this approach before on other Al-Qaeda members with much success.'" The FBI agents' advice was summarily ignored.

The report goes on to describe a regime of physical torture and intimidation levied against Zubaydah that included masks to "prevent Abu Zubaydah 'from seeing the security guards as individuals who he may attempt to establish a relationship or dialogue with.'"

So, what do such "rapport-building" techniques look like? A 2009 report by the Intelligence Science Board (ISB), titled "Intelligence Interviewing: Teaching Papers and Case Studies," outlines the benefits of non-coercive interrogation techniques based in behavioural science.

"rapport-building" techniques persuade detainees to disclose information

The goal of such methods, the report states, is to persuade detainees to disclose information that they normally wouldn't through conversational methods that focus on building trust and breaking down ideological barriers to communication. Instead of "interrogations," the report refers to these interactions as "intelligence interviews."

The report's recommendations for interrogators follow six principles laid out by Robert Caldini in his 1984 national best seller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Those principles say that a detainee is more likely to cooperate if: he or she likes the interviewer; believes the interviewer is an authority figure; perceives the interviewer's actions as consistent; is offered something in exchange for information; is told that others are cooperating, and is told that an offer of some sort must be taken before it expires.

These principles are based on well-established beliefs in the field of behavioural science. That subjects respond positively to a reward is a decades-old idea known as operant conditioning. The notion that someone might respond well to an offer with a short deadline is indebted to the concept of scarcity, a base assumption at the heart of economics that assumes something becomes more subjectively valuable as its availability diminishes.

The report also outlines how stress—like the kind induced while being threatened or tortured—can have negative effects on memory by increasing a detainee's "cognitive load," making it difficult for them to recall information.

To wit, a 2004 Yale study subjected 509 enrolled soldiers to 48 hours of sensory deprivation and a subsequent interrogation. When the researchers later asked the subjects to identify personnel who participated in the interrogation, the majority could not pick them out of a lineup. Recall proved better after a low-stress experience.

The report outlines several case studies in which intelligence interviews, as opposed to torture, resulted in valuable information being divulged by detainees.

Mohammed Rasheed Daoud Al-Owhali, one of four suspects imprisoned for the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, was subjected to 14 days of interviews in which he was allowed to pray and shared meals with his interviewers. According to the ISB's report, this series of interviews resulted in valuable—and most importantly, truthful—information about his collaborators including names and phone numbers.

These tactics are a sharp contrast to the kinds of CIA interrogation techniques outlined in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, which include threatening a man with a gun and a power drill, rectal feeding, and forcing a prisoner to play Russian roulette.

The report concludes that these tactics "regularly resulted in fabricated information" but never elicited "unique" intelligence that could not be gotten through other means.

Troublingly, the 2009 ISB report also reveals that the CIA's torture tactics were carried out in the absence of any evidence that they might work in the first place. The report concluded that "the study team could not discover an objective scientific basis for the techniques commonly used by US interrogators."

"The study team's extensive investigations determined that the US Government had funded significant research efforts on interrogation during the 1950s," the report continues, "but revealed no government research programs on interrogation-related topics in the past 40 years."

It should be no surprise, then, that the Senate Intelligence Committee's report found that the CIA's interrogation program was largely ineffective and "far more brutal" than anticipated. After all, it was carried out not only in the absence of any empirical evidence that it might work, but in willing disregard for established non-coercive practices used by other agencies.