Why is the science of interrogation so neglected?

I’ve read a ton about the debate over torture, but in a piece in today’s New York Times Week In Review, Scott Shane makes a new and excellent point: The government has spent virtually nothing studying the sciences of influence and persuasion and how they apply to interrogation.

Shane points out that well-known fact that the Army Field Manual explicitly advises against torture; it offers instead a set of observations about human motivation that an interrogator can exploit. (“People tend to want to talk when they are under stress and respond to kindness and understanding during trying circumstances,” for example.) This is the sort of behavioral psychology we’ve all learned at the foot of prime-time police procedurals. But, as Shane points out, an understanding of this stuff isn’t reflected at the highest levels of government, which is either a symptom — or a cause — of the bigger problem, which is that the feds don’t avail themselves of the truckloads of research that’s been done in recent decades, partly by corporations eager to get people to buy, y’know, $300 prestressed jeans.

As Shane writes …

… the manual’s inherited wisdom has not been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers. Behavioral economists have dissected decisionmaking, and academic psychologists have studied political persuasion, but their lessons have not informed the interrogator’s art either. Nor has there been a systematic effort to analyze the successes and blunders of the interrogations carried out since the attacks of 2001.

Steven M. Kleinman, a colonel in the Air Force reserve and a veteran interrogator in Iraq and elsewhere, says the government spends billions on spy satellites but almost nothing on studying interrogation. This is true, he said, despite a broad consensus that interrogation might be the best source of information on an elusive, low-tech, stateless foe like Al Qaeda.

“We need to bring scientific standards for interrogation to the same level of sophistication that we bring to satellite imagery and intercepting communications,” said Mr. Kleinman, who has studied the American interrogation programs used for high-level German and Japanese prisoners during World War II, which he judges superior to those developed since 2001.

Kleinman suggests “a new intelligence agency or subagency devoted solely to interrogation — sponsoring research, conducting training and building a team of sophisticated interrogators with linguistic and psychological skills.” That sounds like a great idea. When I wrote a story a year ago for the New York Times Magazine about the intelligence agencies — and the difficulty they’re having getting their superlegacied and legally “airgapped” databases to talk to one another — virtually everyone I talked to agreed that high-tech spying was great, but secondary to good old-fashioned cultivation of sources. If you want to understand the makeup of terrorist threats, you need to just, well, talk to a lot of people, which requires intelligence experts fluent in the languages and psychology — not the black arts of torture.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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