II. Mr. C —  Psychologists as “leash holders” and assistants in interrogations

     I participated in training where we worked with US forces that we were training to go abroad. And we would conduct a [mock] hostile interrogation, but we always had a psychologist there, sort of as leash holder, because the one thing I found, that no matter—And I’m almost a pacifist in my personal beliefs. I don’t really support war as a means to an end. I don’t think you ever win on that.—However, when you get in a situation where what you’re doing starts as an interview and then it moves into interrogation, you psychologically, you just sort of snap a little bit and you start to apply harsher and harsher techniques to the situation to get to your goal and become obsessed with it.

     As an area intelligence officer, I’m fairly well trained in the soft sort of psychological [mode]:  motivate them, influence a person. And yes, that is always the preferred method. If you can, through casual discourse, conversation back and forth, gain what you want, then that’s the way to do it. Because ultimately your product is better. If you employ harsh tactics, your product is subject to question, because you don’t know whether he or she’s answered you from the desire to have you stop, or giving you the information you want.

     How is it that a person who’s been trained in the social skills, or what you’ve called soft, methods— what would pull you in the other direction?

     Usually it’s time. I think it’s important to think of things in a strategic and a tactical model. Now on a strategic basis, you have time. And everything is orchestrated, planned, and there’s no defined end. In a tactical situation, you usually have a twenty-four to forty-eight hour deadline. And people can generally resist twenty-four to forty-eight hours. After forty-eight hours, tactical intelligence is considered highly perishable and it’s probably gone. When you go through your SERE training, as an example, I believe it’s a three-day course. If you can last the three days, anything of tactical value has probably expired. It doesn’t matter at that point.

     My particular training was, last seventy-two hours by denying everything, and then have layers of lies, basically, that I would expose, which is always a little bit of the truth, to them until, as long as I could hold out. Realizing that people will eventually all break. Everyone will break. It’s just a matter of time.

     Do they break in terms of telling you the truth, what they know, or do they break in terms of figuring out what they want to hear?

      When I say break, what I’m really thinking about is they will become a cooperating source. But are they cooperating to get you off their back?  Or are they cooperating because it’s really cooperative. So then you have to employ test questions and probing questions. You need to validate the information against other, other sources. No one source should ever be taken as the truth. It’s raw information to be considered with other raw information. You ideally would have at least three points to validate before you considered anything true. And then it would be processed into intelligence.

      Realistically, as a tactical intelligence officer, I know that most people, their intelligence is perishable. I need to get it within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, because it’s not going to do me any good. Then I just go on to the next guy. The way we set up to process our prisoners is, we would bring them through, and we’d actually spend a half an hour with them, maybe an hour. And if we thought there was something, we might take a couple of hours. But after that, we just don’t have time, in a tactical situation you don’t have time to spend doing intensive long interrogations. So you send them back to the rear area, to the detention camps. And that’s where you get the more involved interrogation would occur there.

     And were you speaking through translators?

     Well, we’d have the interrogators that we’d train in the target country language. We were very Soviet-oriented in those days. I was on the Fulda Gap [between West and East Germany] looking towards East Germany and Czechoslovakia. So those were our targets. Our interrogators spoke those languages and they could interrogate. And we would train our own people in interrogation debriefing and run them through our interrogators and give them a taste of what it might be like if they were captured.

     ... So anyway, back to  these psychologists.

     They were involved in training to make sure that we didn’t go too far. Because as I said, I even found myself, a naturally peace loving person, tending to exceed what the limits were if there wasn’t somebody watching. There are people, I think, out there who will avoid being pushed to that point, who have the integrity that they’ll walk away. But I think there are very few.

     Did you feel that there are any ethical issues there for the psychologist?

     I would actually turn that into a question for you, and maybe this will give you the answer. The psychologists, if we look at them, are working in several different ways. A psychologist could be working on behalf of the sources in a client/patient relationship. The psychologists could be working on my behalf and giving me background information. I don’t know, because I’ve never used it, I’ve never heard about it being used. I’ve never inquired about it, but I guess you could send a psychologist on a “false flag” sort of situation. So is it unethical for a psychologist to advise me on how to manipulate a source? Is it unethical for the psychologist to help me construct my interrogation technique and tactic?  I understand the very explicit ethical question, [that] if the psychologist is working with the source as a patient, in a patient/client relationship, there’s an ethical boundary there. But in all those other cases, what are your ethical boundaries?


Issue 1:  The clandestine officer himself poses the principal ethical question in the last paragraph:  “So is it unethical for a psychologist to advise me on how to manipulate a source?”

Issue 2:  Psychological ethics constrains research harmful to interrogatees but does not require beneficial research. In the first paragraph, Mr. C describes how interviews may easily transition into abusive interrogations. This invites consideration of whether psychological research to undermine the source should necessitate corresponding research to advance the interrogator’s self-awareness and self-mastery. That is to say, better weapons may require better safeguards.

Issue 3:  Psychologists are routinely used as “leash holders,” or monitors, for counterinterrogation training of security personnel who are vulnerable to capture and harsh interrogation, as in the SERE training program. What ethical guidelines are appropriate in such cases?  Under what conditions, if any, can psychologists ethically serve as leash holders in hostile interrogations?


Mr. C (pseudonym), Arrigo, Jean Maria, MacMichael, David, & Welsh, Cheryl. (2008, June 29). Psychological assistance in field operations—Conversation with a former clandestine service officer. Meeting for the Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook (PMIC) on Interrogation Ethics, Herdon, VA. PMIC Case Materials, Intelligence Ethics Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. [Audiorecording and transcripts.]  [To be deposited in 2008].