OLD WAR, NEW METHODS

The art and heart of interrogation

Mr Mark Fallon, an experienced interrogator, believes Hollywood and James Bond movies have helped perpetuate the myth that torture works.
Mr Mark Fallon, an experienced interrogator, believes Hollywood and James Bond movies have helped perpetuate the myth that torture works.PHOTO: VICKI GREEN

TRUST works better than torture in breaking down hardened terrorists.

So says Mr Mark Fallon, 57, a former United States Navy counter-intelligence agent.

An interrogator will get more reliable intelligence using the cookie, tea and honey method, rather than the vinegar method, he says.

For more than 30 years, Mr Fallon worked with teams that interrogated hundreds of Al-Qaeda terrorists. He was the top investigator looking into the suicide bombing of the US Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. In the incident, suicide bombers exploded a small boat alongside the destroyer as it was refuelling in the Yemeni port of Aden.

His teams have included intelligence analysts, lawyers and interpreters. Their role was to observe the dynamics of the interview process and give feedback to the interrogator on what was working and what was not, says Mr Fallon.

Mr Fallon is no stranger to Singapore and the region. He worked closely with the Internal Security Department and the Singapore Police Force in the 1980s, and was involved in a 2010 study of Singapore and other countries on counter-terrorist rehabilitation programmes.

The experienced interrogator believes there is a lot of misinformation on the subject of interrogation in the public sphere, notably in Hollywood and James Bond movies, that help perpetuate the myth that torture works.

Interrogation

TORTURE methods have been around for centuries. Indeed, some countries still use torture to extract confessions from alleged spies and terrorists. But torture produces a confession rather than useful intelligence. The results are therefore useful only for propaganda purposes, says the soft-spoken interrogation expert with a genial presence.

"People under pressure will confess to things they didn't do, and they will give you inaccurate information," explains Mr Fallon.

Having inaccurate or misleading information does not help build a case to convict terrorists either, he says.

It is important to understand the art of interrogation. This is because right techniques can yield accurate information, enabling the authorities to understand the true nature of the threat, draw up plans to thwart new attacks and smash terror networks.

Torture tactics

THE use of torture, on the other hand, can be counter-productive. Terrorists jailed for less serious offences, such as fighting in conflict zones, become hardened after witnessing the effects of brutal torture on their cellmates.

Mr Fallon argues that torture can turn cooperative captives into uncooperative ones.

In his interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, a key figure linked to Al-Qaeda, former Federal Bureau of Investigation officer Ali Soufan got the detainee to identify Khalid Sheik Mohammed as the mastermind behind the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. But after other interrogators used torture on Abu Zubaydah, including water boarding him 83 times, the terrorist stopped talking.

These torture tactics later spread to Iraq in 2003, where abuse of prisoners by US military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison triggered shock reactions around the world.

Male prisoners were forced to wear female underwear, and interrogators reportedly treated the Quran with disrespect. Sleep deprivation for up to 11 days and confinement in cramped, dark boxes for hours were reported.

A better way

IN 2009, several years after the publicity in 2004 about abuses against terrorist detainees in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, the US government set up a special group known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) to find better ways of interrogating terrorists.

At a 2013 HIG symposium in the US, one group reported that the methods made famous by the World War II German interrogator Hanns Schraff were highly effective.

Schraff was friendly and spoke fluent English. He would research all available information on the prisoner, such as years of service and personal details.

By using even patchy details, he managed to create the impression that he knew everything about the prisoner's activities. The captured men, believing that he was very well-informed, then revealed military secrets.

For those who talked, he arranged for chaperoned outings to the zoo, a nature walk in the forest and even the chance to fly in a German fighter plane.

Last year, the HIG awarded a five-year research grant to the University of Texas at El Paso to carry out studies on effective interrogation techniques. In one project, about 400 interrogators from the intelligence, police and military organisations will be interviewed.

Mr Fallon likens the art of interrogation to taking music lessons.

"You can learn how to sing or play musical instruments. But, you must know when to hit the high notes.

"Interrogation is an art. A skilled and well-trained interrogator will know when he needs to move in and ask a tough question.

"Or when to sit back and listen. All this comes with experience," he says.

Cookies, tea and honey

CONTRARY to popular belief that terrorists are well-trained to resist interrogation techniques, Mr Fallon says they usually receive little or poor training.

A terrorist manual found in the home of an Al-Qaeda member in Manchester, Britain, tells its members that they are to expect torture tactics from their captors if they are arrested.

Mr Fallon says reverse psychology is the best way to counter these ideas.

Kind treatment from their captors is something terrorists do not expect. And when they receive it, they are taken aback and begin to question the ideas planted in their minds by Al-Qaeda.

A dose of kindness goes a long way, says the expert interrogator who has had sessions with jailed terrorists and terrorist recruiters in many parts of the world, including members of the militant group Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia.

"When you treat someone with dignity and respect, and when he is not expecting it, he will begin to trust you.

"You can then start to develop a rapport with the terrorist," he says.

No single silver bullet

AFTER his retirement from public duty in 2010, Mr Fallon joined organisations that oversaw training programmes and did global research studies on violent extremism. In 2012, he set up ClubFed, a company that provides consultancy services on security issues.

Mr Fallon knows from his years of experience in counter-terrorism that it is important for an interrogator to understand what got the terrorist into the cell in order to reverse the process.

"No two terrorists are the same, and there is no single silver bullet that will solve all of the interrogator's problems," he says.

mnirmala@sph.com.sg

This is a weekly series featuring people in the fight against terror