The Art of Interrogation: part 1, an introduction

This article was originally posted on Ross Elder’s previous blog, The Elder Statesman.


“When was the last time you saw Bin Laden?”  The interrogator screams at the beaten and exhausted subject.  Experiencing the difficulty of trying to breath through his sobs and snot covered face; the subject just shakes his head in reply.

As a result, the subject is placed in a “sweat box” or a “hot box” as they are also occasionally called.  Stuffed uncomfortably into the small space, barely capable of filling their lungs with a full breath, the intention is to further break them down until they submit to your line of questioning.  Other techniques can also be used.  Waterboarding seems to be the favorite of the day in most popular films concerning such things.

Or, perhaps, it is Jack Bauer, the relentless agent from the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit made famous by the television series, 24, using the exposed conductors from a broken desk lamp to shock his subject into submission.  Or, Arnold Schwarzenegger, under the heavy influence of some amatol concoction, confessing his secret life to his long-time wife in the film, True Lies.  For police drama, we could always reflect on Dennis Franz’s judicious use of a phone book as a tool in NYPD Blue.

These are the images conjured when someone mentions interrogation.  Unfortunately, they are not only the least likely to be used, they are often the least likely to produce useful information.  They do make for interesting entertainment, however.  But, for those of us who have worked in the field of interrogation, they set a false standard for those who may find themselves in need of interrogation skills.

“When would I ever need to interrogate someone?”  You ask?  The answer is simple:  You do it every day.  You just don’t realize you are.  And, conversely, you probably aren’t doing it correctly.  But, those specifics will be for a future article in this series.  Today, I would like to simply offer an introduction.

My first real experience with interrogation was gained at the tender age of 19 while attending Military Police School in Fort McClellan, Alabama.  As part of our training, we were instructed in the proper techniques for questioning suspects, as well as witnesses, in response to a reported crime.  It is standard police work that is taught to every police cadet in every academy.  It is a simple form of interrogation, actually.  It is very much akin to “Tactical Questioning” as seen on the battlefields of today’s conflicts.  Simple, straight forward questions are posed and relatively simple answers are given.  In-depth interrogation may occur later if the person appears to possess more information that might serve useful in the investigation of the crime.

Near the end of MP School, I did the one thing all soldiers are warned not to do:  I volunteered.  We were simply told that the United States Army needed some volunteers to participate in some training that was not a part of our standard curriculum and for which we would receive absolutely no credit for taking part.  (Sounds great so far, huh?)  But, we would be away from the training compound for a few hours each day for a week.  Since getting out of the training area wasn’t something that was common, I, along with about 10 other soldiers, raised my hand.

The following day, the volunteers were loaded onto a bus and transported to an ugly, single-story building set into the woods of Fort McClellan.  If my memory serves me correctly, the typically colored DOD sign in front of the building informed us that we were entering the U.S. Army Polygraph Institute.  During that week of volunteer duty, which included lots of time to relax, soft drinks, and snacks, I learned much about the human mind and the art of interrogation.  Primarily, I learned that, if managed correctly, the mind really can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality.  The following is one example.

The volunteers were used as guinea pigs for government agents who were gaining their certifications as polygraph examiners.  Agents from various agencies including the CID, FBI, DEA, and CIA, would put us through various scenarios and then subject us to a polygraph examination in an attempt to solve the mystery of that particular scenario.  The center of attention was a female mannequin that the chief instructor innocuously named, Mary.  “Mary” would be placed in the room with the volunteers and various instructions were given, each volunteer receiving a different set of instructions.  In some cases, the volunteer would walk up to “Mary” and bash her in the head with a baseball bat.  Another might shove a knife into her abdomen.  Some volunteers would sit and witness the horrific crime, while others left the room and saw nothing except the now dead “Mary” when they returned.

Each participant was taken into a room with an examiner and the interrogation would begin.  Yes, a polygraph is a form of interrogation.  It is simply using a device to assist in that interrogation.  I learned that even a good polygraph examination was dependent upon good pre-polygraph and post-polygraph interviews.  Interrogations are most often referred to as “interviews” in today’s day and age.  It is much less frightening and reads much more casually in the press.

Oddly enough, even though we all knew very well that “Mary” was just an inanimate mannequin made of plastic; the polygraphs were still accurate and valid.  The reason being, “Mary” was never referred to as <b><i>anything other than just “Mary.” </i></b>

“Did you witness Jones causing injury to Mary?”

“Did you at any time cause injury to Mary?”

“Did you witness anyone mistreating Mary at any time today?”

With that line of questioning, your mind simply knows what was, and was not, done to “Mary.”  The fact that she wasn’t real made no difference in the examination.  Facts are facts, no matter how silly they may seem.

The pre and post-polygraph interviews are used to establish a baseline prior to the examination, and to refine follow-up questions afterward.  Pre-examination interviews can be just as useful in standard interrogation.  A baseline must be established.  Much has been written, some of it inaccurate in fact, about common “tells” that people exhibit when telling a lie.  Although these ideas of tells are based in truth, they are not consistent between all people.  Just like in poker, every person will have their own little quirks and ticks that can indicate whether they are playing it straight, or about to lay out a whopper of a bluff.  Most people do not spend any time trying to defeat these tells or reduce their presence.  That is why you see so many people playing poker on television while wearing large, floppy hats, wide sunglasses, and facial hair.  Those coverings can reduce the visibility of the player’s tells.

The baseline is established by creating a relaxed atmosphere for the subject.  Simple, innocuous questions are asked; questions for which you expect an honest answer.  Your age.  Your height.  Where you were born.  The age of your parents.  How long you have lived in a specific area.  These are all baseline questions.  The person may exhibit some form of discomfort or anxiety because they are being questioned, but those traits should be different than when they are exhibiting deceptive behavior.  Once you have the baseline, you now know what that person’s normal behavior are and can judge when that behavior changes.

Discomfort and anxiety in and of themselves do not always indicate deception, however.  Each person will react differently, but within certain parameters of human behavior.  The key is to understand how that person acts and reacts when they are being honest.  That is your baseline for further questioning when attempts at deception will be more likely.  Even those who believe themselves to be smooth and composed under pressure will exhibit some form of behavior that indicates their deception.  It is the job of the trained interrogator to be able to spot them and capitalize upon them during the interrogation.  Some are so subtle that they are referred to as “Micro-tells.”  A very discriminating eye is required to spot them.  This skill generally comes with many years of experience looking into the face of an accomplished liar.

In contrast to the first few paragraphs of this article, a true interrogation, a masterfully orchestrated interview, is nothing more than a conversation.  A very important conversation, one filled with ups and downs, calmness and excitement, flatness and emotion, but just a conversation none-the-less.  Under conditions of actual torture (and my definition will probably differ from yours) a subject may confess to crimes they did not commit in hopes that the torture will stop.  During instruction on interrogation, I was fond of saying, “Give me a hammer, some duct-tape, and a 2×4 and they will tell me anything I want them to tell me.” The key phrase being, “what I want them to tell me.”  It may not actually be the truth.

Chemical interrogations can produce nothing more than fantasy and dreams instead of useful information.  You certainly don’t want to go to the boss and tell him that you found your man… and his unicorn is parked outside next to the spaceship flown by leprechauns.  Although those tactics can be used effectively, it is generally only under specific circumstances.  Perhaps we will visit that in a future offering in this series.

For now, that is your basic introduction to interview and interrogation.  Next in this series, I will discuss both proper and improper methods that are used by professionals, and not-so-professionals, in their search for the truth.

Ross Elder

About the author:  Ross Elder is a graduate of several schools of investigation, interview, and interrogation techniques.  For 15 years, he traveled the U.S. training other corporate investigators and investigation managers in proper investigative practices and interrogation technique.  During the course of his career, he personally conducted well over 1,000 interviews with suspects accused of a variety of crimes that included larceny, embezzlement, child abuse, rape, assault, and attempted murder.