The Art of Interrogation: part 2, preparation

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

Note: This series of articles is only intended to give the reader a basic understanding of interrogation, its techniques, and its place in operations. Interested parties seeking a thorough education are encouraged to attend a course on interrogation, available from a respected school of instruction.

In part 1 of The Art of Interrogation, you were given a brief introduction to this oft neglected aspect of operations, security, and investigations. Part 2 will give you an overview of how to prepare for an interrogation and the various types of interrogation that are utilized in a variety of circumstances.

The most important thing to remember is that, as an interrogator, you are an investigator. Where physical evidence, analysis of the scene, and other forms of investigation may provide you with the “who, what, when, where, and how” the interrogation provides something physical evidence often can’t: why?

From a tactical perspective, why something happened may seem irrelevant. But, strategically, knowing “the why” may be vitally important in preventing a similar event from taking place. As an investigator and student of human behavior, understanding the motivations of perpetrators should be an important aspect of any interrogation. Failing to achieve this goal, however, would not necessarily indicate that your interrogation was unsuccessful.

Preparation for an interrogation is almost as important as the interrogation itself. If you have the time beforehand, you should endeavor to know everything possible about the subject before you sit down for the interview. Under optimum circumstances, you would have that person’s personal information -including information on family members, their financial history, their employment records, criminal and civil records, and school transcripts just as a starting point.

If you lack this pre-interrogation investigative material, such as in a tactical interrogation of someone encountered on the battlefield, you are essentially conducting what we call a “cold” interview. Cold interviews are perhaps the most challenging of the interrogation types. You know nothing about the person beyond, perhaps, that they had just taken part in some form of attack or criminal action. Maybe they were just acting suspiciously and were pulled aside for additional scrutiny. The only information you will have available to you at the time will be the information you extract from the subject during your interrogation.

Prior to talking to a subject of a cold interview, talk to those who detained them. If they are in official custody, talk to those who have been monitoring them prior to your arrival. Examine the pocket litter and any other material confiscated from the subject. It can provide critical clues, not just to the subject’s intentions, but also to how to approach the subject.

As an example, years ago, I was observing an interview conducted by a colleague and the subject would not talk to the interrogator. The subject wouldn’t even offer his name. He did not physically resist apprehension, but he was utilizing his right to remain silent. Completely silent. As I watched the interrogator try a variety of techniques and fail, I casually fished through the items taken from the person during his arrest. Nestled under a few crumpled receipts and coins was a single military ID tag. I looked at it. The persons service number was not a social security number as is used in the modern military. The number was preceded by the letters US. In the old days, this indicated a person who was drafted, as opposed to a voluntary enlistment which gave you a serial number preceeded by RA if you were “regular army.”

I let the investigator struggle for a few more minutes before I took a seat next to the subject and asked a simple question.

“When were you drafted?”

He immediately replied, “1968,” the first words he had spoken in more than 30 minutes. From there, he began talking. Not to my colleague, but to me. It was a simple connection to the subject that opened the door for further questioning. I was able to conduct and conclude the interview without any further difficulty.

During a cold interview, or tactical questioning, if you can find something, anything, to open that initial doorway, you will be ahead of the game. This requires an understanding of cultural norms and at least a moderate understanding of behavioral analysis. The person’s own behavior may give you clues to an opening. Perhaps the person has photographs of their children in their wallet that can open a conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you have children, or not. Tell them you do.

“Are these your children? You have beautiful children. I miss when mine were that small. Its such a great age.” Just make sure its something you can at least be moderately convincing of while discussing it. Get them to talk about something other than the large pink elephant in the room. This might help overcome their fear and anxiety and build a rapport between you.

Now, and this may seem counterproductive, but, the thruthfulness of what the person reveals to you at this stage is irrelevant. They are going to lie. Its okay. So will you. But, letting them lie will give you material later when you break down their story as the interrogation becomes more intense. Just write down what they reveal to you in your notes and move on with your conversation.

In the initial stage of the interrogation, do not reveal whatever pre-interrogation intelligence you were able to build. It IS counterproductive to reveal your case to the subject. By doing so, you are giving them a box within which to operate. That box may serve to protect them as opposed to traping them. For instance, let’s say this person was caught stealing fuel from a fuel point at the edge of your post-apocalyptic compound. He was caught in the act. You have him dead to rights, as it were.

But, what if that is a very small portion of his activities? What if that fuel was just to help keep his family warm during some cold nights? He could be completely truthful about that incident and never exhibit any outward signs of deception. It was a minor incident. A slap on the wrist is administered and he goes on his way. Then, he continues his intelligence gathering activities, his theft of munitions for your enemies, and goes on to provide detailed maps of your compound and locations of vital resources.

He never lied to you because he didn’t have to. You boxed both of you into a very small area of concern. Its the best defense against lie detection: don’t lie. There is no deception, no red flags are raised, and you failed to understand the scope of the person’s activities.


Aside from studying the subject and all of the information available, you, as the interrogator, have to prepare yourself. The worst thing an interrogator can do during an interview is show a lack of confidence. If you are an overly nervous sort of person, fidgety, tend to stammer when under pressure, or generally can’t display self-confidence, being the interrogator may not be for you. I’m not talking about arrogance. Arrogance is just as detrimental to the process. You have to be confident in what you say. You have to give the subject every reason to think you know exactly what you are talking about.

You may have to learn to control your nerves. You may have to fake it. The subject may reveal something that is unexpected, or even shocking. You have to take it in stride and not overreact to that information. You have to learn to control your emotions. That is the most difficult thing for most interrogators to overcome.

“I kidnapped this girl and murdered her. Her body is in a grape vineyard.”

Well, that’s quite a revelation. If you wretch and gasp and mumble, “Oh, my God,” your interview may end right there. It would be more useful to say, “Hey, at least you didn’t eat her. You aren’t an animal. You made a mistake. Let’s talk about that.”

Make notes prior to the interrogation. Write down exactly what information you hope to obtain, what questions you intend to ask, and what your expected outcome might be. This is not a script. It is reference material to keep you on track. People often get caught up in the moment and lose sight of vital areas that need to be addressed. The notes are for you, not anyone else.

You will not read from these notes. You will glance at them and use them as reference. At no time should you be indicating to the subject that you are inexperienced and reading from a script. The interrogation has to remain fluid and you have to adjust with it.

Write an introduction for yourself. This is how you will present yourself to the subject. Memorize it. Practice it, over and over, until it flows out of you naturally in conversational tones. Its not, “I’m commander killing machine from the 1st death squad and I want answers, mister.” It needs to be innocuous and natural.

Greet them. Shake their hand. “Hello. My name is Ross. The commander asked if I would sit down and talk to you for a few moments. Due to the serious nature of what happened today, we are interested in discovering why these things happen. Have you been treated well so far?” This, of course, is just a simple example and isn’t intended as a cut and paste introduction. This casual approach works well in most situations. It is contrary to what most people expect. They expect yelling, anger, and possibly physical abuse. Projecting the opposite of their expectations may be all that is needed to open that first door.


Environmental preparation may not be possible in a tactical environment. The best possible location for the interrogation may happen to be sitting on the ground in the shade of an MRAP on the side of the road. If so, you have to go with it. Improvise. Remain flexible.

If you have the resources and the time, you can prepare your interrogation location prior to having the subject delivered. Arranging the location is also part of your strategy for cooperation. Non-threatening should be the goal. Just like in your innocuous introduction, you want to put the person at ease as much as possible. Naturally, if the subject is violent and dangerous, this is not going to work. They may be handcuffed and shackled or chained to the ground. Work with what you have. But, the surroundings shouldn’t influence your approach.

Taking the position of intimidation and authority is not typically the most productive means of building rapport. Don’t stand over a seated subject. Don’t place a desk between you and the subject. Placing a barrier, such as a desk, between you and your subject can cause them to instinctively become defensive. Think about the times you had to enter the boss’ s office and stand on the carpet while he read you the riot act from behind his, or her, position of superiority behind that desk. You knew your place and there was no way out of it. These things have the same effect on interrogation subjects.

There may be times when that approach is beneficial, but those are more advanced practices for experienced interrogators who understand the psychology of that particular subject. For now, lets stick to the basics.

Safety is always paramount. Sweep the room and remove anything that could pose a danger to the interrogator or that could be used as a weapon by the subject. If the subject must be guarded during the interrogation, arrange the seating so that the guard is behind the subject, seated, and out of their peripheral vision. You want the subject’s attention squarely on you and only you during the interrogation.

This also applies if you are interrogating someone of the opposite sex. Use a witness the same gender as the subject, but keep them out of the line of sight of the subject if possible. Do not allow guards or witnesses to speak to the subject. In fact, don’t let them speak at all if you can help it. You, and only you, should speak to the subject under normal circumstances. Exceptions can be made, but avoid it if possible. Prep your guards and witnesses so they are not surprised by the proceedings and instruct them to not react to them. Even a muffled gasp, or sigh, can be enough distraction to cause your interrogation to be derailed.

Sit facing the subject head-on. Look at them. Make eye contact throughout the process. Engage them actively in conversation. But, never let your guard down. In the blink of an eye, someone can go from amiable informant to violent attacker. You never know what might set the person off so protect yourself accordingly. Your goal is to appear relaxed and confident and put the subject at ease so they open up to you in conversation. For you, that ease and comfort needs to be a facade. Be prepared for anything. Don’t lean back in a reclined position. Don’t cross your ankles. Don’t have both hands occupied at the same time. Those things may be the cues the perpetrator is looking for before they attempt to escape.

In Part 3, I will discuss both good and bad techniques and proper formatting of questions.

Ross Elder