DNI Advisors Favor Non-Coercive “Intelligence Interviewing”

08.27.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Intelligence personnel who are trying to elicit information from a prisoner or a detainee can effectively do so in a non-coercive manner, according to the Intelligence Science Board (ISB), an official advisory group to the Director of National Intelligence.

“The United States and other democracies can benefit from exploring and learning more in the area of non-coercive intelligence interviewing,” the Board said in a sequel (pdf) to its December 2006 report on “Educing Information” (pdf).  That earlier study found that existing U.S. intelligence interrogation practices were not scientifically well-founded.  “The study team could not discover an objective scientific basis for the techniques commonly used by U.S. interrogators.”

The newly disclosed follow-on report, dated April 2009, “is written primarily for individuals concerned with ‘high-value’ detainees and those who focus mainly on strategic interrogation.”  It provides a survey of behavioral science perspectives on topics relevant to the interrogation process — including persuasion, power, stress, resistance, and memory — as well as two case studies of actual interrogations.

A copy of the ISB report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Intelligence Interviewing: Teaching Papers and Case Studies,” A Report from the Study on Educing Information, Intelligence Science Board, April 2009 (211 pages).

The ISB report adopted the new term “intelligence interviewing” instead of “interrogation” in part because it said “interrogation” is freighted with stereotypes often involving coercion.  The report emphasized the utility of non-coercive interrogation but acknowledged the difficulty of empirically establishing its superiority to coercive questioning.

“During Phases I and II, contributors could find no studies that compare the results of ‘coercive’ interrogations with those of non-coercive intelligence interviews. It is also difficult to imagine how such studies might be conducted in a scientifically valid, let alone morally acceptable, manner.”

The ISB study notably dissected the “ticking time bomb” scenario that is often portrayed in television thrillers (and which has “captured the public imagination”).  The authors patiently explained why that hypothetical scenario is not a sensible guide to interrogation policy or a justification for torture.  Moral considerations aside, the ISB report said, coercive interrogation may produce unreliable results, foster increased resistance, and preclude the discovery of unsuspected intelligence information of value (pp. 40-42).

“There also are no guarantees that non-coercive intelligence interviewing will obtain the necessary information,” the report said. “However, the United States has important recent examples of effective, non-coercive intelligence interviewing with high value detainees.”

The ISB said its report could “provide experienced and successful interviewers a more formal understanding of the approaches they may have used instinctively. It may also help them to communicate their expertise to their colleagues… This [report] is intended to foster thinking and discussion and to encourage knowledge-based teaching, research, and practice. It does not, and cannot, offer doctrine or prescriptions. It is a start, not an end.”

The mission of the Intelligence Science Board is “to provide the Intelligence Community with outside expert advice and unconventional thinking, early notice of advances in science and technology, insight into new applications of existing technology, and special studies that require skills or organizational approaches not resident within the Intelligence Community.”