The Interrogator's Notebook

Join a former interrogator in asking the hard questions.

Blog from the Author of The Interrogator's Notebook

Questions about enhanced interrogation techniques and black op military prisons have made us more aware than ever of the ethical treatment of prisoners and the role of interrogation in providing intelligence to our armed forces. This blog will present news and points of view in this ongoing debate. Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.

Martin Ott


Who Interrogates the CIA When They Lie?

A recent report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its interrogation program for years.

So what did dozens of CIA detainees and 6,000+ pages of documentation show us? That we were lied to about the efficacy of advanced interrogation techniques and that some off-the-books techniques like pouring ice water over prisoners were standard operating procedures.

There's some drama over the accuracy of the reports and some public sniping between the committee and the CIA



Prolonged Detention of U.S. Citizens for Interrogations?


Each year, the National Defense Authorization Act is a bill that is signed by the President. President Obama signed the 2013 version with a controversial provision that allows for the indefinite imprisonment of U.S. citizens.

One of the items that has flown under the radar in the debate on interrogation is the ability of the U.S. government to detain an individual without a charge or trial.

If the government captures a suspected terrorist that is a U.S. citizen, we may never know about it as the individual can very well be imprisoned and interrogated for as long as the government deems that it is in the national interest. This type of interrogation could very well be financed by black ops budgets estimated to be in excess of $50 billion and performed by off-the-books interrogators at private security firms.

This may sound like paranoia. However, we are not that far removed from holding our own citizens of Japanese and German descent during WW2. If this were to happen, it is very unlikely that anyone would know about it to protest.

Lost Opportunities in the Interrogation of George Zimmerman by Police

In late June, Esquire John H. Richardson from Esquire rightly pointed out a quote from a police interview with George Zimmerman that he thought was important and named his article: The Quote that Should End the Trayvon Trial.

Here's is an excerpt from that interrogation:

A few moments later, he asks Zimmerman why he kept following Martin even after the police dispatcher told him not to. Zimmerman’s answer is staggering.

“I wanted to give them an address.”

An address? This may be the moment that will convict him. It means that even he suspected that Martin was a legitimate visitor to the complex, staying in an apartment and legally on the property, Zimmerman continued to pursue him. And it makes sense that Martin was staying there because of the terrain, the complex being isolated from other complexes and a mile distant from the nearest shopping center. A professional thief would be moving intentionally, not wandering down the middle of the street in the full light of the streetlamps. Although Zimmerman’s fear supposedly hinges on the series of robberies that the police believed had been addressed already with an arrest, it seems clear that even Zimmerman didn’t really believe his own alibi. More likely, even in his mind, Martin was a kid from the neighborhood out smoking a joint and at the worst, looking for a little illicit excitement — a “fking punk.”

At this point, the officer asks again why he was following Martin — and Zimmerman flat-out lies. “I wasn’t following him, I was just going in the same direction he was.” The cop just laughs.

The admission of Zimmerman wanting to give police an address was not a smoking gun, though. He could have been referring to an address of a place that Trayvon Martin would be attempting to break into rather than his knowledge that this stranger in a hoodie was probably staying nearby.

The real lost opportunity here was in the police not recognizing the two areas to follow up on in the interrogation:

- George Zimmerman's belief in his own words about what the "address" meant. If he thought that Martin was a guest in the neighborhood, the interrogators needed to make Zimmerman say it in his own words.

- Calling out the easily refutable lie that Zimmerman wasn't following Trayvon Martin as a way to put Zimmerman on the defensive throughout the rest of the interview

It's easy for me as a former interrogator to be a Monday morning quarterback here , but the real artistry in interrogation is to seize upon the one or two opportunities during an interview that may yield an admission.

The Interrogation of Children

Two recent reports from two different parts of the world hint at potential problematic behavior in the interrogation of children.

The Ma'an news agency reported that a Palestinian teenager accused an Israeli interrogator of threatening rape

In a Maryland kindergarten, a five year boy was interrogated for two hours by Calvert County school officials after showing another boy his toy cap gun on a bus. The interrogation caused the boy to wet his pants, according to his mother on Huffington Post.  

I cannot speak to the real facts in either of these cases. I do know, however, when a country is fearful of violence it is less likely to consider the rights of any prisoner. How we, as democratic societies, treat the weakest and most vulnerable of us, says a lot about who we really are. A question for us to ask ourselves every day is: what price are we willing to pay for freedom, and when does that price lead to the erosion of the same freedom we are protecting?

Red Tape as a Torture Device at Guantanamo Bay


Many of us have pictures in our head about the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and some of the enhanced interrogation techniques that were exposed there.

However it may be that red tape is the worst torture device of all in the war against terror. Journalist Max Fisher in the Washington Post breaks down the 4 different ways that prisoners can leave the detention facility in his article Why hasn't Obama closed Guantanamo Bay. The first two paths to leave Gitmo - civilian trial and military tribunal - have been blocked by Congress.

Another path for the detainees - to send them into a foreign country's legal system - can only be done if it can be proved they aren't being tortured. The 4th route, that applies to more than half of the 166 detainees, would be to find a new country to send prisoners to if they have already been exonerated of any wrongdoing. No one is saying that it will be easy to do. However, it also wasn't easy to put bounties on the heads of terrorists (in some cases up to $25K), and to pay for the information that led to so many false arrests at Gitmo.

The hunger strikes by Gitmo prisoners have grabbed the media spotlight, for now.  Obama and our government should do more, and the American people should hold them more accountable to do so.

Interrogation's Greatest Hits

For many years, playing loud music to keep prisoners awake has been in the repertoire of CIA and military interrogators. Here is a reported playlist:

  • "All Eyes on Me," Tupac
  • "America," Neil Diamond
  • "American Pie," Don McLean
  • "Baby One More Time," Britney Spears
  • "Babylon," David Gray.
  • "Bodies," Drowning Pool
  • "Born in the USA," Bruce Springsteen
  • "Bulls on Parade," Rage Against the Machine
  • "Click Click Boom," Saliva
  • "Cold," Matchbox 20
  • "Die MF Die," Dope
  • "Dirrty," Christina Aguilera
  • "Don't Gimme No Lip," Pearl Jam
  • "Enter Sandman," Metallica
  • "F**k Your God," Deicide
  • "Hell's Bells," AC/DC
  • "Killing in the Name," Rage Against the Machine
  • "I Love You," from the "Barney and Friends" children's TV show
  • "March of Pigs," Nine Inch Nails
  • "Meow Mix" jingle
  • "Raspberry Beret," Prince
  • "Real Slim Shady," Eminem
  • "Sesame Street," theme song from the children's TV show.
  • "Shoot to Thrill," AC/DC
  • "Somewhat Damaged," Nine Inch Nails
  • "Staying Alive," The Bee Gees
  • "Swan Dive," HedPE
  • "Take Your Best Shot," Dope
  • "These Boots Were Made for Walking," Nancy Sinatra
  • "We Are the Champions," Queen
  • "White America," Eminem.

I wonder if this was someone's ITunes playlist? Have I considered queueing this up for my downstairs neighbors blasting Bjork on a Sunday morning? Well, we all have our weak moments.

Read more about this at ABC NewsThe Guardian,  KVUE.comMental Floss, Mother JonesOMG, Scholars and RoguesSpiegel and Spin

The Interrotron - Technology for Intense On-Camera Interviews


Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has a secret weapon for unsettling interviews: The Interrotron. Developed with production designer and frequent collaborator Steve Hardie, the technique allows an interviewee to maintain eye contact with Morris so that there is an intensity and honesty to what appears on film.

This technique replicates the intensity of the eye contact in an intense interview session, and allows us to see more genuine reactions to questions. Even artists are looking for enhanced techniques to obtain the truth. 

Can Entertainment Change the Rules of Interrogation?



In a recent article in the Atlantic, journalist and author Joshua E. S. Phillips writes about how the real legacy of the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty may be in interrogation rooms as the harshness of the interrogations depicted in the film has registered with the American public and, more importantly, policy makers. 

in 2007, Supreme Court Justice Scalia cited an episode of 24 in which agent Jack Bauer saves Los Angeles from terrorists as proof that torture works. The TV series 24 was also used in interrogation training during the Bush/Cheney years.

I can understand how the perceptions of the American public can be swayed by dramatized interrogations, but one would hope that our elected and military leaders would do more homework and crack a book, such as Fear Up Harsh by Tony Lagouranis and How to Break a Terrorist by Matthew Alexander that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques. 


Yale University Enters the Interrogation Debate


Yale University recently announced that it will host the US SOCOM Center of Excellence for Operation Neuroscience. Led by Doctor Charles Morgan III, Green Berets and other Special Ops will learn the methods of Modified Cognitive Interviewing, a system that builds positive rapport between the soldier and the interviewee, and has been suggested to be more reliable than enhanced interrogation techniques.

Sounds positive, right? However, the research will focus on the New Have immigrant community, drawing the ire of students of alumni who think that Yale has crossed a line. Given our checkered history of our major universities in supporting CIA research in the 1950s and 1960s, a bit of skepticism is warranted. Also, should it be the role of our institutions of higher learning to train our military personnel?

Brennan Flip Flops on Interrogation During Hearings

John Brennan, nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, flip flopped during recent congressional hearings on his support of enhanced interrogation techniques. Previously, he had stated that the now-defunct interrogation program "saved lives," but now classifies the program as a "low point in our history." 

If it wasn't for the drama surrounding the drones program, much more would be made about Brennan's assertions that he had gotten misinformation and that he had misgivings that he'd privately confided to agency colleagues. This is a man who looked the other way at potential abuses. Should we really trust that he won't do what's politically expedient, even sacrificing lives, when push comes to shove?

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