Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coercive Interrogation

Steven Kleinman is an Air Force Reserve Colonel with experience interrogating prisoners during the Panama invasion, the First Gulf War, and most recently in Iraq, where he became in his words perhaps the "most unpopular officer" in the country because of his efforts to halt "harsh" interrogations.

Col Kleinman knew that the problem with coercive techniques is that they elicit false information. Responding to questions by NPR's Robert Siegel, Kleinman said, "it's not just harsh physically, but I think the element that was more persuasive was their ability to induce what is known as debility, depression and dread through emotional and psychological techniques that profoundly altered somebody's ability to answer questions truthfully even if they wanted to. It truly undermined their ability to recall, so therefore it would call into question its efficacy in an intelligence-based interrogation."

He explained that "a key point that your listeners need to understand, so they can grasp the gravity of the situation, is that the primary objective of that approach to interrogation was not truth … but somebody's political truth. In the Korean War, they actually compelled some of our pilots to admit to dropping chemical weapons on cities and so forth, when in fact that didn't happen. Now, that stands in stark contrast to intelligence interrogation, where the overriding objective is provide timely, accurate, reliable, comprehensive intelligence."

There's a lesson here for domestic law enforcement. Those being interrogated, just like downed American pilots in the Korean War, can be driven to say what interrogators expect of them, even if it's a fabrication. Think it doesn't happen here? The Innocence Project ranks false confessions as one of the major causes of wrongful convictions. Consider the case of Danial Williams, wrongly convicted of murdering Michelle Bosko in 1997. The following account is taken from an academic paper by Law Professor Richard A. Leo and Professor of Psychology Deborah Davis.

Never imagining that he was a suspect, Williams willingly followed them to the police station, arriving at 6:30 pm. Police kept him waiting while they followed up with other witnesses until about 8 pm, when they undertook an interrogation that would last through the night, until after 7 am the next morning. Williams, who was exhausted and had not eaten since breakfast at around 9 am, maintained his innocence for the first ten hours as he was interrogated by three different detectives. He agreed to take a polygraph, and he was falsely told that he had "failed."

He was relentlessly accused of having sexual interest in Michelle and of raping and murdering her; he was accused of lying about his reported memories of his relationship with Michelle and his activities at the time of the murder; and he was told, falsely, that an eyewitness had seen him leave Michelle’s apartment around the time of the murder. As the interrogation continued into the wee hours of the morning, Williams became increasingly exhausted and sleep-deprived; at one point when he put his head down on the table to rest, the interrogators told him to pick it back up.

As Williams continued to deny involvement, the interrogators began to suggest that he could have "repressed" his memories of the crime—that he could have blacked out, or been sleepwalking, that he could have amnesia. Even though he had begun to doubt his own memory and to wonder if he had somehow committed the crime, he continued to resist their repeated accusations. But at around 4:50 am, a new interrogator was brought in –Detective Robert Glenn Ford.

Ford was known for his aggressive interrogation techniques, and his frequent success in inducing confessions. But he was also known for some more shady techniques, many known to enhance the risk of false confession, and had already been demoted once for coercing false confessions from three teenagers in 1990. Subsequently, he induced known false confessions in at least two more cases in 1994 and 1997.

The interview with Col Kleinman is available online, as is Leo's full paper on false confessions and wrongful convictions. Warning: what I've extracted from Leo's account is only the tip of the iceberg. Don't follow this link unless you're willing to be enraged. Until Americans recognize the folly of believing what people say when they are under duress, we'll continue to follow tragic paths based upon faulty data.

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