America's War on Terror

Interview With a Frontline Interrogator

The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda

The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda by Chris Mackey and Greg Miller, Time Warner(2004).  

Chris Mackey knows first-hand the pressures interrogators face in America’s War on Terror. A member of a special military intelligence task force, Mackey served as a senior interrogator in prisoner of war camps in Kandahar, a city in southern Afghanistan, and in Bagram, north of the capital Kabul.

Mackey, together with co-author and journalist Greg Miller, has recently published The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda. In his book, Mackey lists the type of ruses -- such as the nerve-rattling “Fear Up” and the condescending “We Know It All” -- used by interrogators to squeeze information from their prisoners.

The former intelligence specialist comes out wholeheartedly against torture but argues that the tactics taught in the US military classrooms are often no match for hardened al-Qaeda terrorists. And so, soldiers are tempted to skirt the rules to get results.

You describe your work at Bagram and Kandahar as “intelligence triage.” What do you mean by that?

I think it would be wrong to say that everything we did followed that model. But without a doubt, a large portion of our responsibilities was to try to sort out the important from the less important people and to question those who had perishable information. The rest of the prisoners would be sent on to Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, to be questioned at length by people who had more of a strategic interest.

Who decided which prisoners stayed in Afghanistan, which got released and who went to Cuba?

It was a multi-layered process. I was the first person in that chain and probably the least important. Then, above me, was the warrant officer to whom I answered, and above him was the higher echelon of the fighting intelligence community on the ground. And finally it was all reviewed by a group of people at Camp Doha, in Kuwait.

From where did you get the prisoners?

They were taken from many places. You had people taken in operations like Tora Bora [in December 2001] and Anaconda [in March 2002]. Some were taken in raids by civilian intelligence, by US Special Forces-types, by the Marine Corps, and finally, by the regular US Army - either the 101st Airborne or the 82nd Airborne.

However, most prisoners turned over to us came from the Pakistani authorities. They conducted sweeps along their border region with Afghanistan, the so-called “Badlands”; people who fit a certain profile were sometimes turned over to the US.

You make an oblique reference to working with the “Other Government Agency” in Afghanistan. What was the level of cooperation between military intelligence, this "Other Government Agency" and the FBI?

The level of cooperation, at least in my sphere of operations, was very low. The Army is obsessed about getting to the battlefield commander intelligence that can save soldiers’ lives, so some Swiss bank account is going to be less important to us than to others. But certain civilian intelligence agencies - and I would not include the FBI in this - thought they had a mission that trumped all other missions.

You mention that the OGA or Special Forces would drop suspects at your doorstep without explanation. How much did that hamper your intelligence gathering?

Sometimes it frustrated our efforts all together. We knew that some of our prisoners had been previously questioned by our civilian counterparts, but they did not arrive with any interrogations notes. The more clever ones among the prisoners, the ones who had something valuable to say, realized immediately that there was no cooperation going on. As a result, they took heart psychologically and were able to orchestrate better resistance techniques to our interrogations.

What are the Huachuca rules?

There is a set of 16 approaches, allowed by the Geneva Convention, that are taught to interrogators at the Army’s Interrogation Center and School at Fort Huachuca, in Arizona.

You mention two approaches “Befuddled Interrogator” and “Fear Down” at which women interrogators were very good. What are they?

We played to our enemies’ natural disdain of women by putting in a female interrogator who would feign absolute ignorance of the Afghan tribal system with a prisoner. A teacher-student relationship would develop, and she would let him talk until he stumbled upon something about which he knew a great deal.

A clever interrogator can tell whether the prisoner was just talking or had a personal connection to his subject matter ... You will never catch him talking about something obvious like the inner workings of an alarm clock, but any clue helps.

As for "Fear Down", I might be generalizing, but female soldiers are very good at talking to terrified villagers and trying to secure their cooperation.

I understand that there are strict limitations about what can be done to prisoners. How do you get people to talk when you cannot physically punish them?

We don’t. I don’t support the use of physical penalties for failure to cooperate with an interrogator. I really do believe what I was taught in school, but I also realize the limitations we have. The only methods that we can use in circumstances where someone under direct questioning is being uncooperative are the use of incentives, the denial of incentives and the “futility approach.”

A negative incentive might be, “If you do not cooperate with us, you’ll go to Cuba, and chances are, you will never see your family again.” Of course, it all depends on how credible you make the incentive or disincentive sound.

Truth is we can not go very far - I can tell a Moroccan al-Qaeda suspect that members of his native intelligence agency are coming to pick him up next Tuesday, but I cannot paint too graphic a picture of what will happen to him in their hands. That would be violating the prohibition of “placing a dagger on the table.” However, I have recently read that the Army now believes that is too explicit a threat.

You used sleep deprivation, what you called “monstering,” as a way extracting of information.

We realized that some of our best intelligence was coming at the end of interrogations lasting six or more hours. We wanted to synthesize that same sense of fatigue felt by the prisoner in the last 45 minutes of those long sessions.

We could have just put the prisoner in a room with an MP who would keep him awake, but that would be inviting violations of the Geneva Convention. The alternative was to have an interrogator in there too. It would be hard for someone to criticize us for cruel treatment if our own soldier was in there for the same amount of time.

Whenever some prisoner would “shut down” and act passive in the face of our threats, I took that as a sign that he was trying to regroup psychologically. That was when we “monstered” him. After six or seven hours, even he gets tired of praying to God. The problem is that “monstering” is very debilitating to interrogators too.

What mistakes do interrogators make?

They show their emotion - anger, fear, etc. Interrogators can feign emotion but must always be in control of their emotions.

What is the danger of playing too loose with the rules?

There are grave dangers. When I first arrived in Afghanistan, I would have never countenanced “monstering.” Now, the New York Times postulates that the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion (Airborne), out of Fort Bragg, took where we had ended in Bagram as their starting point. By the time they were finished, they had nine new interrogation techniques, including humiliation, the use of dogs and other unsettling things.

A lot of people’s lives are on the line, and intelligence professionals, especially in Iraq, have every bit the responsibility as medics. That’s a lot of pressure for a 30-year-old senior interrogator, let alone an 18-year-old kid. You can bet that, under those circumstances, people will countenance things they normally would not have done otherwise.