2 famous interrogators posing with their POWs.
Guess which one actually got useful information.
Hanns-Joachim Schraff was the greatest German interrogator in world war 2. He worked primarily on captured US airmen and he was so respected for ability to extract secrets that he was dubbed “The Master” by his peers. What vicious tactics did he use to get this information? What horrific torment did he inflict on US airmen? Kindness and a respect for human dignity.
Schraff correctly realized that only a bare fraction of captured enemies would have information of immediate tactical use. And it is highly unlikely that one could extract that information in time to use it. So torturing an enemy to get the “whole story” would be a waste of time. Additionally it would run the risk of getting false information from the prisoner.
Instead, he did everything in his power to help the captives feel relaxed and safe. He would have long talks with the captives and discuss philosophy or some other seemingly safe topic for a prisoner to discuss. All the while, he was collecting bits and pieces of information that he would assemble and use to support the German war effort. Their best interrogator, and he never had to raise his voice.
As a result, after the war Schraff wasn’t tried for war crimes. Instead he was invited to the US to speak to the military about his interrogation techniques. These techniques have come to be used by trained interrogators worldwide.
The photo above is of Scharff at a banquet held in his honor in 1980. Also in the photo were US combat aces James L. Brooks and Robert M. DeHaven, General James H. Doolittle and General Curtis LeMay. Scharff is the tall guy, second from the right.
The obvious and cheep question to ask is “So who will be hosting Lynndie England’s banquet in 2040?”. The more important question is this: How could we allow ourselves to forget these fundamental guidelines for gathering intelligence through interrogation? How could we opt to rely on less effective measures, which have the side effect of ruining our international reputation and hardening our enemies against us?
The key word three paragraphs up is TRAINED. I highlight this because everything we’ve been doing to prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan reeks of amateur hour and shows how poor (non-existent) our post invasion planning was. Many of our interrogators were not trained and thus opted for the scream and harm approach popularized on TV and movies. The result of this has been a black eye on the United States.
The recent debate on torture highlights the fact that we still don’t get it when it comes to torture. By the end of September Congress passed the Terrorism bill backed by President Bush. This bill will give the president broad powers to interpret the Geneva Conventions, while preventing individuals from protesting violations of Geneva standards in court. In short, the CIA can go right on water boarding and humiliating detainees.
None of this is necessary. It won’t make our troops safer and it wont make us safer. The most effective interrogation techniques require no reinterpretation of the Geneva Conventions. They require no secret prisons or secret courts. All they require is some patience and a willingness to accept that the detainee is also a human being. How can we have allowed ourselves to forget this?
Update 7/28/08: I know this post is nearly 2 years old but it still gets a steady stream of hits and a recent comment below made me think that I should add the following disclaimer.
This post is about one Nazi interrogator only. Many interrogators for Nazi Germany were torturing, evil bastards who were rightfully tried and convicted after the second world war. It is not my intent here to gloss over or diminish their crimes in any way. My intent is to highlight how amidst all the torture and deprivation used on other prisoners, the most effective Nazi Interrogator was the one who DIDN’T use torture.
Information from the following websites was used in this article:
http://www.govexec.com/features/0406-01/0406-01s3.htm – The story of Torin Nelson, one of the wistleblowers at Abu Ghraib.
http://www.merkki.com/new_page_2.htm – Website for veterans held at Stalag Luft 1, the primary interrogation facility for the Nazi’s in Europe.
http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=3143 – Center for Defense Information article on the use of torture in interrogation.