INTRO, Interrogation and Tortures (Part II here)
In psychology, the term ‘interrogation’ is often fraught with negative notions like fear, mistrust and some cases, it’s a slippery slope to torture. In a similar vein, the western concept of the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, Russia’s national security agency from 1954-1991) shares many of the same notions.
Studies surrounding interrogations have been telling us for decades about the dangerous perils of psychological coercion that elicit false confessions, yet our legal system allows for trickery, lies and various environmental manipulations to be used at the cost of persecuting the innocent, diminishing the integrity of the system and challenging of our understanding of human and victim rights. The common thought is the more pressure applied, the sooner the object (person of interest) will break and reveal truthful information leading to either a conviction or valuable intel, in spite of what experts in false confessions like Saul Kassin, have been telling us for years. Nonetheless, along with assets and intelligence work (surveillance), it remains that one of the most important aspects of espionage and information gathering from local levels up to national security.
In 2005, ABC News reported that:
Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department’s office of counterterrorism, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust … than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets.” via
My source, for the purpose of this series, a former KGB operative specializing in espionage, counterintelligence, a trained sniper (no less), would vehemently disagree and take insult with the above quote, since by his accounts it’s backwards. With over 30 years experience in KGB, he presents himself as someone well versed in the art of recruitment of assets (trusted informants recruited operatives), interrogation and will not hesitate to inform you he was “the best KGB sources and never made a single mistake”. His view of how the US conducts its intelligence gathering and maintains national security are as you might expect, strongly negative and borderline arrogant, until you realize he possesses highly specialized training with a rare background that qualifies at an expert level to allow such bold assessments and he knows the strategies to back it up. When the question of how to trust this individual arises, rather than incessantly inculcate his background, papers or credentials; we must remember this quote when speaking about Russia or KGB business.
The SVR looms and operates from a headquarters outside (and presumably above, elevation-wise) Moscow via
Over an extensive period of emails, phone calls and meetings on crowded New York City streets, he candidly shared his life story: childhood to adult, education and training, professional and some very personal. He applies observational methods, uses simple pattern spotting, psychological strategies, brainwashing and concepts of triangulation thereby constructing a perception of current/future events which range interesting at the least, and frightening if true. Events that he will discuss may sound preposterous and warrant a reminder that although to westerners, the memory of the KGB secret police is filled with corruption, lies, spies, threats, power and killing… and although the KGB still basically exists in the form of the SVR (with the FSB as the counterespionage agency) my contact considers himself a professional living in the U.S. under political asylum, since returning to Russia or the Ukraine would be certain death. And perhaps he isn’t safe here either. To this end, he is eager to share his knowledge and very interested in comparing his experience and learned psychological techniques of the last 3 decades to the accepted science of today. The idea going forward is to share his background, his knowledge and to strain his education and field experience in the KGB though a psychological screen to understand the methods used then and what that can tell us about the methods used now in similar situations. This is then, a case study of real-life field experience vs scientific or lab research on topics such as interrogation, torture, behavior modification, brain washing and more.
We begin with the topic of interrogation moving towards torture. I am told of nearly 3 dozen accounts of interrogations at KGB district field offices, that doesn’t meet the fast, furious wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am that Hollywood has us believe, nor entirely representative of the graphic Guantanamo images, but rather a long thorough investigation-operation which includes information gathering on the subject which could take months or years, “cooking” the subject (letting him wait, increasing anxiety), building a rapport, using incentives then, if needed using tricks or blackmail, threats of physical violence or rape if in a jail. He stressed that gathering as much info as you can on the subject and rapport building are key techniques, it gardens larger amounts and accurate information. If you have to use more drastic methods or torture- perhaps your intel was not good enough. Once you have the object, there are several techniques that are designed to encourage dialogue:
- good cop / bad cop
- “story under a story” (after intense interrogation the object tells a different story — which is not true, either)
- bombing with questions
- pressure by not interrogating
- “silence makes your situation worse” trick
- “admit one small episode and that’s it” trick
- “I help you - you help me” trick
- “shift” meaning try to shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the subject to commit the crime. That is, develop themes containing reasons that will justify or excuse the crime. Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive.
Many of these methods mirror the trickery used in the US system that have helped make research claims of unaccountably, misconduct very credible. However, my contact insists simply that if they did not work, they would not be used while maintaining that the intelligence gathered before hand is the main aspect from which all other activities are measured.
PD8: In doing over 30 interrogations, what was the most effective method you found in getting reliable, accurate information?
xKGB: The “Breaking” method. The most important thing is to make the object talk by telling him that you want to just to understand what happened and “we, together, may find the way to deal somehow with the situation which “is not very bad right now”. The object, of course, will lie to you, but it doesn’t matter - he’s talking, he “swallowed the bait”. You listen to him, you write down everything and then you break his story into episodes. Then you start interrogating him on each episode but in chaotic order, like episode #1, then #5, then the last one, #4, etc. It’s pretty hard for the object keep logical lying if you act like this - he’ll change his story and put some true details to make it real. Extract those details and help him to tell the truth around them.
He states that every object has a breaking point and there are some indicators that the object is near his breaking point or has already reached it, i.e. leans forward and his facial expression indicates an interest in the proposal or is more hesitant in his argument, he is probably nearing the breaking point.
PD8: If several methods of interrogation were used, are they used in a specific order to increase the pressure to talk, or was it dependant on the object’s demeanor/personality or urgency of obtaining the info?
xKGB: Let me tell you most important thing about interrogations, tortures. If you deal with a “lonely wolf” (self-made terrorist) who won’t talk, you have no choice but to torture him to get info on his possible connections, place where he’s keeping guns or explosives, etc. But if you interrogate a member of organization, you MUST HAVE ASSETS INSIDE THIS ORGANIZATION and you don’t have to torture anybody.
National security isn’t CIA and FBI #1 priority, that’s why they mostly wait for walk-in recruits, I call it a “Newton Syndrome” (referencing a falling apple in your lap).
PD8: How long would a general interrogation last compared before possibly evolving into a torture session?
xKGB: If it’s a lonely “wolf” and he’s very aggressive, refuses to talk, and you know he has connections, you start tortures right away. If it’s organization member and you have no assets inside organization, leave him alone and resign next morning, like an idiot.
PD8: How often would the interrogation warrant moving to torture type procedures?
xKGB: It’s impossible to determine, it depends how professional you are, how you use methods and tricks, how fast you can establish rapport.
PD8: Regarding the Reid interrogation technique and issues eliciting false confessions from accused offenders using minimization and maximization tricks; in your experience has any unreliable/untrue info ever elicited from interrogation? How about torture? What do you attribute that to?
xKGB: The thing is, if you deal with a professional, he usually has “a story under the story” which he offers you as true after intensive interrogation and tortures (people tend to believe info they get after torturing the object). But he can’t lie to me if I have enough intel on, say, his organization. That’s very important - how well are you prepared for interrogation? What is professional factual analysis? It the longest list of questions you have to answer before you interrogate.
PD8: When you detect that the object’s will has broken in an interrogation, what is the first question you ask?
xKGB: Nothing. Do not rush the object, do not humiliate him to show you’re ,finally, a winner and he’s the loser - he’s gonna close up. Just keep on developing the talk, don’t jump out of your chair and be quiet. It’s like a poker.
PD8: How did you confirm the information they provided as true, before moving on it?
xKGB: It depends if you have other sources, other facts, documents and how fast you can check up the information.
PD8: What is training like, or the schooling you were expedited through? (for example, the CIA interviews candidates in multiple rounds and does psychological and physical tests.)
xKGB: CIA are idiots. KGB hires people in 2 ways: a) Human Resources division b) field offices. When KGB officer has a candidate, he’s checking his biography, relatives, his life, habits, connections, etc. It’s very good if candidate is or was an agent (asset). Then the officer makes an offer and the candidate goes through a whole row of doctors at KGB clinic. If health is OK, biography is OK, he’s in. Psychological tests?…KGB was playing this game couple of years early 80’s and then it appeared tests had nothing to do with the ability to recruit and work with agents. My best friend was the best of the best after “psychological tests”, he joined KGB and left in one month - couldn’t work with traitors, too dirty for him. No physical tests - for what? KGB officers don’t run marathons. Training is Counterintelligence School or Intelligence Academy.
PD8: What was the interrogation process like, emotionally?
xKGB: Just a job, not fun. “No mercy, no ideology, no emotions.”
Recent law review articles have discussed the “psychological difficulty of distinguishing between torture and enhanced interrogation” for purposes of law and policy. There isn’t even a clear definition. The argument is that the “torture standard is unreliable because of the marked variation in the manner in which different jurisdictions interpret and employ it”. They also use psychological research to demonstrate the standard’s invalidity as well as “identify the existence of two separate psychological biases that impede objective application of the torture standard” via
Emboldened by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration lost no time establishing a policy that authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that is, torture and abuse.
Next up: From Interrogation to Tortures