III. An Interrogator’s Psychological Assessment of Religious Extremists as Sources

     It was  about that time, in the middle ‘60s, ‘70s, when the terrorism, PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization], and all that stuff was getting crazy. And, gee whiz, how would I approach one of these guys? They’re not really an army guy. So I had to look at them totally different. Because I can’t use those normal army-style things to do with them. But they’re still a person. So I still have something to work with.

     So I look at them as a person and started studying them. How would I approach this [source] as a person? I don’t care what your business is, I can still deal with you as a person.

     Even somebody so fundamentally, ideologically–

     Very difficult. And I realized at that time, my worst nightmare would be a religious fundamentalist. And I was thinking a Baptist at the time. [The interrogator grew up in a Baptist community.]   All of a sudden I just realized, oh, my gosh! Some of the Baptists that I know are very steeped in this stuff. And they shut off. “This is what the Lord says.” And they will see and hear nothing else.

     You’ve got to talk to them and find something that you can start building a relationship with them to get to a point to talk. Because otherwise they’re not listening. If you’re not communicating, you’re never going to have any success of any kind.

     So suppose you get to the point where you’re actually communicating, which could be hard with fundamentalists, what next?

     Well, it’s like negotiating. I want that Coke, and you do, too. We can share it. So there’s got to be a give and take. An offer, a counter offer. An offer, counter offer. You look for the commonalities. You negotiate. You have to search for what does the person want?  What’s motivating them?

     My personal feeling is that there’s a few of the terrorists that are actually religious fundamentalists. The bulk of them are just opportunists. They hijacked religion. It’s just like dealing with the communists. If you’ve got a dyed-in-the-wool communist, he’s not going to [come around], but the average card-carrying member, he’s susceptible to all the other ploys.

     I say we’ve got to satisfy the ego that they have been interrogated. And then once that’s done, this is like me putting my clipboard on the floor: “You’re too tough for me. Tell me, Achmed, how’s the family?”  Not quite like that. But you see what I’m saying?  You disarm them by taking away the obvious. And you go someplace else. But the interrogation’s never over.

     What about the popular conception that we have these thousands of intractable fundamentalist terrorists?

     Oh, it’s Hollywood. Oh, it’s Hollywood. They’re still people.


Issue 1:  Martin’s assessment of the accessibility of religious extremists—“I don’t care what your business is, I can still deal with you as a person”— accords with the social-skills model of interrogation. The assessment that religious extremists are beyond the reach of negotiations accords with the source-debilitation model. What is the role of psychological ethics in evaluating these assessments?

Issue 2: Martin presents a folk psychological perspective on religious extremists as potential interrogatees, which may be dismissed for lack of scientific evidence. But neither have psychologists asserted scientific evidence for source-debilitation methods of interrogation for religious extremists. If the unsupported opinions of senior practitioners are unacceptable as validation, are the unsupported opinions of psychologists acceptable as validation?  Suppose there have been secret psychological experiments apparently supporting source-debilitation methods. Do secret experiments count as scientific support?


Martin, William (pseudonym). (2007, December 15). People just don’t want to associate with you if you’re not a good person. Interview conducted by J.M. Arrigo, Herndon, VA. Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.