Insider Interview: Mr. X

May 1, 2013

Our Ultimate Reader Experience novel for May, TAKEDOWN, features some of the most intense interrogation scenes I have written. The person who has taught me a lot about the art of interrogation, whom we’ll call Mr. X, has agreed to let us turn the tables this month and pose the questions to him. Let’s get right to it:

BRAD: Throughout, TAKEDOWN, several interrogation techniques are employed. Can you shed some light on the various techniques that are used with terror suspects? How you decide which to use in different situations?

MR. X: I always start with the Direct Approach as every interrogator should. I never use a ruse to introduce myself despite that being the preferred method these days. Like Hanns Scharff, I introduce myself as “I am your interrogator” and I lay out their options in a very calm, honest, sincere and matter-of-fact way. “You are at a cross roads. You can lie and go down a road of misery and suffering OR you can cooperate and take the Road of Truth to a much better place.”

I was taught 17 approaches. Approaches are not to be confused with things that enhance the interrogations like stress positions, sleep deprivation, etc.

A skilled interrogator will weave through all the 17 approaches sometimes. Sometimes it only takes the Direct Approach. I have had a couple of people that required me to not only cycle through most of the approaches but to also reuse some. I have no idea how the new generation of interrogators will be effective only being able to use positive approaches (a recent change mandated by the U.S. Government) such as pride and ego up, incentive, etc. Good luck to them.

You match the approach to what you know about the person’s history as well as their state of mind based on their behavior since capture. With first- and second-time Middle Easterners and Afghani detainees, family is big. Once the idea sets in that they might be away for a while, they tend to break down and open up. It comes down to just having a real conversation with another man and empathizing to a large degree.

If the person were particularly difficult, I would just offer that I would put the word out all over his stomping grounds that he was very helpful and turn him loose faster than the other detainees. They know how dangerous their buddies are and oftentimes that’s all it takes to loosen their tongues.

BRAD: How do you evaluate the quality of the information you get from a subject? How do you know when you are getting the truth? How do you know when you’re done?

MR. X: You walk in knowing as much as you can find out about the person from SIGINT, HUMINT, etc. I used to go out on Target so I could look around their house and start gathering information right there. I would look at their demeanor and start the show off with some aggressive Tactical Questioning. That is “direct” mixed with “fear up.” I would ask the SIGINT folks to map where the phones have been and who the guy has been talking and texting with.

The devil is in the details, as they say. I ask the same stuff over and over or ask the person to go over some of the information again. If they are inventing a cover story, I ask them about details such as “What was he wearing? What kind of car? Etc.” Then I go back and ask again. Lies are hard to remember and lots of lies…

I don’t use that body language pupil dilating mojo stuff. Yes, some people have tells, but that “looking up and to the left” stuff is BS and if you rely on it solely, you can lose a LOT of credibility when you accuse a guy of lying and he wasn’t. Cultural factors are a huge part of it too. Try explaining to an average Middle Eastern terror suspect what our concept of lying is.

BRAD: How do you apply the information you collect in an interrogation?

MR. X: It depends. You walk in with goals. It also depends what the person had access to. Typically in Special Operations, it is about working our way through their network. Sometimes it’s getting to people who had hurt our people. Sometimes it’s about recruiting the detainee to go back out and work for us, i.e. “catch and release.” It depends.

BRAD: What are the traits that would intrinsically make someone a good interrogator?

MR. X: A good interrogator is a curious and empathetic person. The more intelligent the interrogator, the better. Former analytical experience helps a person “in the booth” because you spend less time having to be fed questions. Aggressiveness and a strong sense of self are also a plus. Finally, mission focus is a huge factor in the make-up of a good interrogator. Interrogating gets mentally exhausting, and if you’re off your game and a smart detainee sees that…you’re done. That’s a huge waste particularly considering everything that likely went into capturing that person.

BRAD: Is there training for an interrogator/what does it consist of?

MR. X: Each military service has its own training. I was schooled by the Marine Corps. I am partial to Marine selection and training of interrogators. There were so few Marine Interrogators; it was a guarded priesthood of sorts. It was the most difficult training I had ever had because there was no room for error. Sleep deprivation was a big part of that training.

You learn all the questioning techniques until you know them inside and out. By the end, you can weave through them with the grace of a Jedi Knight doing swordplay. We even made our own Interrogator Notebooks like a Jedi makes their own light saber. So over a few months, we studied everything from law to report writing and did hundreds of interrogations. The better you were, the less you slept. That’s where mission focus plays a big part. That’s why I think Marines make superior interrogators.

BRAD: What are some tips my readers can use in extracting information from subjects in their daily lives – whether from colleagues at the office or from children at home?

MR. X: Well, you aren’t supposed to game your family and friends. It’s manipulation and you can become a psychopath if you go down that road. I guess if you really need to know if your spouse, kid or co-worker is lying, focus on the details. Your kid says, “Little Johnny told me.” Okay. Where were you both when he told you? What was he wearing? What was his demeanor like? What kind of car was he driving? Etc. Then wait a little bit. Take the questioning somewhere else and then come back to those questions.

Real stories have emotions and impressions in them. Feelings and thoughts should be interwoven with a real story. It’s the human experience. There are the “I wish I had said that” feelings that sometimes come out as part of the story, but just ask, “What did s/he do when you said that?” and you’ll see a momentary disc spinning as they “compute” an answer. It may last for a fraction of a second but you’ll see it. Caution. If your spouse, friends and kids feel you working them, you’ll be hard pressed to gain their trust back again.

BRAD: I have to ask, what is your favorite Brad Thor novel, and why?

MR. X: I like the Athena Project because of all the fantastic conspiracy theory stuff. What’s better than teleporting Nazis?

BRAD: Do you relate to Scot Harvath in any specific ways?

MR. X: I think a lot of people in Intelligence and Special Ops do these days. Scot Harvath seems to be on the outside a lot and left to his own devices. I relate to that. He maintains his integrity in a corrupt and diseased Roman Empire, which I relate to. Eventually though, we kind of see the light and hang it up so we can focus on mending our psyches and families. Scot seems to hang in there, though. That’s the fiction bit I suppose.


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