Interrogations Without Torture

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, some critics said investigators should have used harsh interrogation techniques with the surviving suspect. Host Michel Martin speaks with counterterrorism expert and former FBI Agent Joe Navarro about how attitudes about torture have evolved, and what really are the most effective ways to interrogate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In the program today, we have some interesting stories about how other parts of the world are grappling with race and heritage. We'll tell you about how one West African country is honoring its Jewish roots, and we'll also talk about the reception Italy's first black Cabinet minister is facing. That's later in the program.

But first, we want to turn our attention to a political discussion that has surfaced a number of times in this country since the 9/11 attacks. The issue is the use of torture to extract information from suspects. After the attack on the Boston Marathon, New York State Senator Greg Ball was among the people who said that torturing the surviving suspect should be considered.

SENATOR GREG BALL: When you talk about terrorism, information matters. And if getting that information, including torture, would save one innocent life, including children, you know, would you use torture? And I can tell you that, you know, I would be first in line.

MARTIN: We actually wanted to know more about whether that premise is actually true. Does torture actually lead to worthwhile information? So we've called Joe Navarro. He's a former FBI special agent. He's co-author of the book "Advanced Interviewing Techniques: Proven Strategies for Law Enforcement, Military, and Security Personnel." We understand that his work has been used to train the FBI's most advanced interrogators, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOE NAVARRO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Navarro, when you hear a political figure like Senator Greg Ball call for torturing a suspect, what goes through your mind?

NAVARRO: I think that's an emotional response. The fact is that there is no professional interviewer that subscribes to torture or to advanced or enhanced interrogation techniques to obtain information. It just doesn't work.

MARTIN: I'm sure you heard that there was a bipartisan committee, or taskforce, led by former Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson. They put out a report recently that said after 9/11 it is, quote, "indisputable that the United States engaged in torture," unquote. You were in the FBI for 25 years before retiring. First of all, do you think that that's true? And secondly, why do you think that happened?

NAVARRO: Well, I think the report is true. I saw the sourcing on it. I think what Americans need to understand, that prior to 9/11, there were very few people within the intelligence community, even within the FBI, that had actually done a foreign counterterrorism interview. And so on 9/11, there were very few experts. And, of course, after 9/11, there was this rush to do a lot of interviews all over the world. And the fact of the matter is we didn't have enough well-trained individuals to do this.

MARTIN: Why doesn't it work? You're very clear on this. You say it does not work. Why not?

NAVARRO: It's very clear, because the purpose of an interview is to get cooperation, not compliance. You know, the FBI has been interviewing terrorists since the anarchists back in the 1920s and '30s. We've never had to use any of these techniques. And, in fact, none of the intelligence services have really ever asked for this. 9/11 didn't change the human brain, and what we know is that people will say anything when they're being tortured.

I mean, we learned this from the Nazis. And there's absolutely no reason for the United States or any of our intelligence services to be using pages from the Gestapo playbook.

MARTIN: Is there an example that you can cite us now where traditional interrogation techniques were used in a case of terrorism and it yielded worthwhile results? I understand that you knew, for example, the interrogators who worked - or the investigators who worked on the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, which is noteworthy for many Americans, because that's the first time a lot of us heard, you know, al-Qaida. What were the techniques used in that case, and how did that yield useful results, useful intelligence?

NAVARRO: Very traditional techniques. The - I can't go into details, but the fact of the matter is, is we were effective because we used techniques that psychologically seduce individuals into cooperating and providing information. We have been very successful using these techniques. We have never required that we use any kind of roughing up of individuals or any extraordinary techniques. And after 9/11, there was simply no need for that.

I think what happened was, is we had a lot of individuals who were suddenly thrust into conducting these terrorism interviews. They had no experience in this area, because basically, terrorism had been statistically miniscule in the United States, and they were frustrated. And so they resorted to techniques that weren't needed. And the fact of the matter is, is that these techniques were used for a very short period of time by people who were not experienced.

And we haven't needed them since they were finally declared, you know, by various administrations, that this was something that we were not going to do. We just don't need it. It's not efficacious.

MARTIN: If you...

NAVARRO: And by that I mean - if I may, Michel...

MARTIN: Sure.

NAVARRO: ...is that you - when you put people under stress, they tend to forget information. I mean, just think about it. When you get into an argument, it's only 20 minutes later you remember all the clever lines you should have said. When you induce stress, when you cause anxiety, you're actually affecting the person's memory.

You're actually causing - I mean, if these techniques that they were used are in fact true, and I think that they were - you're causing an individual to probably will have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who - and that, in and of itself, will affect later recall. And that's just something you don't want. And not just that, it's illegal.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with former FBI special agent and counterterrorism expert Joe Navarro. He is considered an advanced interrogator, professional interrogator. He's written books on the subject, manuals on the subject, and his techniques have been used to train other FBI agents. So, Joe Navarro, why does the perception persist - I think it's fair to say that the perception exists that this is useful, and that people who don't want to use these techniques are just too weak.

NAVARRO: It has nothing to do with weakness. Number one, it's illegal. But more importantly, perhaps, or equally importantly, it has to do with the efficacy of it. And that is that traditional techniques work just fine. I think a lot of people grandstand and proclaim themselves to be more patriotic because they're willing to do these things. But why don't they ask the interviewers?

No one in the Secret Service has asked for these techniques. No one in the FBI has asked for them. It's interesting to note that, for instance, within the CIA, the polygraphers who are expert interviewers, none of them have ever needed these techniques. And, in fact, U.S. Army Intelligence hasn't asked for these techniques. Very few people ask for them. And in the long run, what really works is to psychologically seduce these individuals to give us all the information that they have, not just a little bit.

The downside of these coercive techniques is they can be misleading. They can send you on an investigation that eats up manpower. And we must never equate chatter, the individual talking, with the truth. The fact of the matter is that the only thing that torture guarantees is pain. It never guarantees the truth.

MARTIN: Members of this administration, including the president and Vice President Joe Biden, have consistently maintained that the use of these techniques is counter to U.S. interests. In fact, it's harmful to U.S. interests. Why might that be?

NAVARRO: Well, number one is it's against the law. These things are codified. It's against the law to hurt someone or torture someone or to abuse someone. Plenty of people in the past have gone to prison for such things and we've signed international treaties. Those treaties are, in fact, U.S. law and we are a nation of laws. It's just simply illegal.

MARTIN: As I mentioned...

NAVARRO: Period.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, that this bipartisan taskforce - we happened to have spoken with Republican member Asa Hutchinson about this, who said that this did occur. It's part of our nation's history now. Can you put the genie back in the bottle?

NAVARRO: Well, I think there needs to be a resolution of this because we can not continue 10, 15, 20 years on down, debating whether it should have been done, was it done? What was the status of it? This is something that needs to be resolved by the politicians and say, look, if it occurred, we made a mistake. We shouldn't have done it. But it needs to be resolved. It is the policy of the United States. It's the law of the United States that we are not to injure, coerce or in any way do things to individuals that would be considered torture, and that's the law.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, I don't know whether you have an opinion about this, but I'm interested if you do. Do you feel that some action should occur to hold individuals accountable who did engage in these techniques, even if they did it under the extreme conditions that occurred after 9/11 where, as you mentioned, people were very angry. Obviously, it was a very traumatic event for the country. Do you feel that some further action needs to occur involving these individuals?

NAVARRO: Well, that's really way above my pay scale, but I do think that legislatures and Congress need to look at this, maybe have a hearing and let's put this behind us. Admit it if we did something wrong and move on, and agree that we're not going to do this again and we're not going to need it, and rely on experienced investigators to tell them how to best investigate and not to listen to people who have never conducted a hostile interview.

MARTIN: That was former FBI special agent, Joe Navarro. He's a counterterrorism expert. He's the author of a number of books on questioning and body language and he was kind enough to join us from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida.

Mr. Navarro, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NAVARRO: Glad to be here, Michel.

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MARTIN: Coming up, the appointment of Italy's first black cabinet minister has been hailed as a sign of real progress for the country and with a blast of racist slurs, including by a member of parliament. So which really represents Italy today? We'll ask NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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