Beyond 'Zero Dark Thirty' Oscars fail: Torture is an ineffective interrogation approach

Academy-Award nominated film 'Zero Dark Thirty' has more issues than its disappointing Oscar showing. Based on my interviews with military interrogators, the movie's portrayal of torture as effective – even vital to getting Osama bin Laden – couldn't be further from the truth.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Best Actress Nominee Jessica Chastain for 'Zero Dark Thirty' arrives at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 24. Op-ed contributor Matthew D. Semel writes: 'The interrogators I spoke with present a very different picture from the one portrayed in the film....The majority of them emphasized that human connections, not physical abuse, insured the greatest likelihood of success during an interrogation.'

The film “Zero Dark Thirty,” a fictionalized account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has refueled the debate about the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques. After facing harsh criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, the film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, had a poor showing at the Oscars last night as well, winning only the award for Best Sound Editing in a rare tie with the James Bond film “Skyfall.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Zero Dark Thirty” presents torture as a necessary and effective method of extracting information from prisoners and an essential tool used by the Central Intelligence Agency to find bin Laden. Though many in the intelligence community said the film portrayal of torture yielding the information key to getting bin Laden is inaccurate, most viewers come away with the impression that “enhanced interrogation” not only works – but that it can be vital.

For the military interrogators I interviewed who have questioned hundreds of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, nothing could be further from the truth.

As part of a recent study about military interrogations techniques, I spoke to many human intelligence (HUMINT) collectors. Through an online survey, 143 active-duty reserve, and retired military interrogators were asked them how they performed their jobs. These men and women, who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, were also asked to rate the effectiveness of a variety of interrogation techniques.

With the exception of one member of the sample, these interrogators uniformly agreed that torture and other harsh methods were worth little when trying to gather accurate human intelligence. The majority of study participants stated a strong dislike of violence in interrogations and asserted time and again that if the direct questioning of a detainee failed, building rapport was the most effective way to collect information from a human subject. As one study participant wrote, “Torture is for amateurs.”

Official Army policy supports this view as well. The US military’s interrogation bible, the Army Human Intelligence Collector Operations Field Manual, advises human intelligence collectors that the direct approach – asking a subject a direct question – has been historically shown to work with 90 percent or more of interrogation subjects.

The manual also advises that all human intelligence collection begins with the direct approach. In addition, a rapport-building strategy “is an integral part of the approach phase.” While sometimes time-consuming, interrogators in my study endorsed rapport building as the most effective approach for evoking accurate intelligence from a prisoner.

The historical record also refutes the idea that torture “works.” Hanns Scharff, a legendary German interrogator who is the subject of a book by military writer Raymond Toliver, cited preparation not violence as the surest way to procure intelligence from an enemy prisoner of war.

From Mr. Toliver’s book, “The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff: Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe”, we learn that Scharff, who primarily questioned downed US pilots, used guile and charm to evoke information from an interrogatee. Scharff, who was referred to as “The Master,” championed rapport building. And he was so successful at building relationships with American POWs that after World War II concluded, he reunited with some of his former interrogation subjects in the United States.

The participants in my study also emphasized the importance of preparation in conducting a successful interrogation. One study participant asserted that the most critical part of any interrogation is the creation of an interrogation plan. Before an interrogator enters the interrogation booth, he or she learns as much as possible about the interrogation subject. Interrogators indicated to me that poor preparation produced poor interrogations that usually yielded information of little or no value.

Every interrogation is different, as is every interrogation subject. Not all strategies work for all people and sometimes interrogators have little information with which to prepare. But the subjects of my study overwhelmingly agreed that if violence entered the interrogation booth, the interrogation was a failure.

The majority of them emphasized that human connections, not physical abuse, insured the greatest likelihood of success during an interrogation. Interrogators in my study argued that an offer of a cigarette, a joke, or a discussion of religious beliefs produced greater results than waterboarding, beatings, or sleep deprivation. One interrogator reported that if “the interrogator, the interpreter and the subject were laughing together, information [was] generally more reliable.”

Rapport building can also be effective with high-value targets. One active duty Army interrogator, with 19 years of human intelligence collecting experience wrote: “Hardened terrorists we capture expect physical and verbal abuse. When we offer a cup of tea instead it takes them out of their comfort zone.” An Air Force reservist of 26 years, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported this view. He indicated that “establishing trust and rapport through displays of cultural finesse and the appearance of genuine concern for the detainee” is the most effective practice.

The interrogators I spoke with present a very different picture from the one portrayed in the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film may be a cinematic triumph, its disappointing Oscar showing aside, but one of its central messages could not be further from the truth. Torture doesn’t work. Just ask interrogators.

Matthew D. Semel, J.D., Ph.D. is assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y.

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