Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Top 10 books on U.S. interrogation

By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist Most Americans do not realize the sheer volume of literature that exists showing that torture is a great tool for extracting false confessions but an extremely poor tool for collecting intelligence. Here’s my Top 10: 1. The Black Banners, by Ali Soufan. From my ...


By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

Most Americans do not realize the sheer volume of literature that exists showing that torture is a great tool for extracting false confessions but an extremely poor tool for collecting intelligence. Here’s my Top 10:

1. The Black Banners, by Ali Soufan. From my review of the book in the Army’s Military Review: "Soufan describes multiple interrogations in which he earned the trust and cooperation of Al-Qaeda operatives, only to have psychologists and amateur interrogators from the CIA destroy this rapport through brutality. He reports that once they used harsh techniques, detainees stopped providing substantial intelligence." Soufan, an Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator, dispels the myth that al Qaeda terrorists are "hardened" to withstand traditional interrogation approaches. Getting al Qaeda members to talk, he demonstrates, is rarely difficult for a skilled interrogator who uses rapport-based approaches and who understands their language, culture, and religion.

2. Stalking the Vietcong, by Colonel (Ret.) Stuart Herrington. Although primarily known as a counterinsurgency classic (this book is one of the recommended readings in the famous 2006 counterinsurgency manual), this memoir describes how Colonel Herrington convinced a senior South Vietnamese official to use rapport-based approaches rather than torture. The result was not only far more reliable intelligence, but often, the "turning" of enemy soldiers so that they actively collected against their former units. Incidentally, in a more recent essay, he writes about what he learned from his 2002 and 2003 inspections of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, respectively. This essay, which is his foreword to my own book on tactical-level interrogations in Iraq, is as important as any on the subject. You don’t need to buy my book to read it. It’s available online here.

3. How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, by Matthew Alexander and John Bruning. From my review of Alexander’s second memoir, Kill or Capture, for Military Review: "In his ?rst memoir, How to Break a Terrorist, Alexander described how he used the power of personal example to teach his team that they could be far more effective if they convinced (rather than coerced) their sources to talk. Thanks to his good efforts — and to those he led — his unit quickly began to produce results. Most notably, his team coaxed intelligence from sources that led to the successful U.S. air strike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

4. The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff, Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe, by Raymond Toliver. Nazis are invariably depicted in movies as cruel torturers. Historical reality is different — surprisingly so, in light of the Holocaust and how many Nazis treated members of "races" they deemed inferior. The Nazis’ most successful interrogator, Hanns Scharff, "methodically and deliberately treated his prisoners with dignity." Some eyewitnesses reported that Scharff never even raised his voice in questioning. Instead, he enjoyed great success by building rapport with captured Allied pilots. After the war, the U.S. Air Force paid him the ultimate compliment by inviting him to America to teach their interrogators.

5. Mission: Black List #1: The Inside Story of the Search for Saddam Hussein — As Told by the Soldier Who Masterminded His Capture, by Eric Maddox and Davin Seay. From the book’s Amazon website: "Maddox’s candid and compelling narrative reveals the logic behind the unique interrogation process he developed and provides an insider’s look at his psychologically subtle, nonviolent methods. The result is a gripping, moment-by-moment account of the historic mission that brought down Black List #1." You will hear more about this book in 2014: It is being made this year into a movie starring Robert Pattinson.

6. None of Us Were Like This Before, by Joshua Phillips. Phillips explores the causes and harmful effects, not just of American soldiers recently torturing for information, but of their abusing detainees in general. The book is particularly important for those researching military suicides and "moral injury," a PTSD-like condition that derives from the cognitive dissonance that occurs when people see or do things that conflict with their own deeply held values. In one chapter, Phillips investigates the utility of torture and, after a survey of literature on the subject, concludes that there seems to be no real evidence that torture gathers intelligence well. In one of my favorite paragraphs, Phillips cites the apparent "patina of pseudo-science" that was passed on by the mere presence of psychologists at torture sessions, making it appear to others as if there were a scientifically valid basis for torture (even if these psychologists often did little to actually influence interrogation plans).

7. The History of Camp Tracy: Japanese WWII POWs and the Future of Strategic Interrogation, by Alexander D. Corbin. Corbin tells the story of a remarkably successful interrogation facility established during World War II at Camp Tracy, California, for the questioning of Japanese POWs. Camp Tracy interrogation teams consisted of one Caucasian and one Nisei, thus enabling teams to leverage language skills, cultural knowledge, and physical appearance to build rapport. In making the case that interrogators today should pay close heed to lessons learned at this facility, Corbin describes the similarities between Islamic radicals today and zealous Japanese warriors willing to conduct suicide attacks for their God Emperor. From the foreword: "The use of torture or ‘physical coercion’ was not necessary; in fact, the opposite was true: Camp Tracy interrogators found that courtesy and kindness overcame most Japanese reluctance and reticence."

8. Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq, by Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian. This book teaches interrogation through counter-example — what wrong looks like. As an impressionable new interrogator, Lagouranis had the misfortune of being assigned in 2004 to two of the worst places for interrogators in Iraq, Abu Ghraib prison and a facility run by one of Petraeus’s brigades that was nearly as bad. Lagouranis’s Kurtz-like descent into the heart of darkness is a cautionary tale for the U.S. military interrogation community. He summarizes his team’s failure to collect intelligence through torture thus: "These techniques [EITs] were propagated throughout the Cold War, picked up again after 9/11, used by the CIA, filtered down to army interrogators at Guantanamo, filtered again through Abu Ghraib, and used, apparently, around the country by special forces…If torture works — which is debatable — maybe they had the training to make sure it worked. But at our end of the chain, we had no idea what we were doing. We were just a bunch of frustrated enlisted men picking approved techniques off a menu."

9. Slow Burn: The Rise and Bitter Fall of American Intelligence in Vietnam, by Orrin DeForest and David Chanoff. This memoir describes how DeForest, a CIA interrogation officer in Vietnam, employed the "art of sympathetic interrogation" at the war’s most successful joint interrogation center. He also describes the critical need of interrogators for access to robust databases and supporting analysis. The book makes the compelling case that if intelligent rapport-based methods supported by robust analysis had been the norm rather than simple, brutal, and ignorant tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence would have enjoyed far greater success in the war.

10. Field Manual 2-22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations, which can be downloaded online. The accumulated practical wisdom of generations of U.S. military interrogators has been collected into the latest iteration of this book-length manual. Here’s what they have to say: "Use of torture is not only illegal but also it is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the HUMINT collector wants to hear." Not the most exciting reading, but indispensable if you want to understand how the vast majority of U.S. military interrogators really think.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is a military intelligence officer who has served in various command and staff positions in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, most recently, Afghanistan. He is the author of the Command and General Staff College Foundation Press’s inaugural book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1