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WWII Interrogators Criticize Today’s Methods

Today’s WaPo fronts the story of the most interrogators of WWII, who had a reunion yesterday at Fort Hunt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the focus is on those who spoke out about the war in Iraq and the interrogation techniques now being used.

For six decades, they held their silence. The group of World War II veterans kept a military code and the decorum of their generation, telling virtually no one of their top-secret work interrogating Nazi prisoners of war at Fort Hunt.

When about two dozen veterans got together yesterday for the first time since the 1940s, many of the proud men lamented the chasm between the way they conducted interrogations during the war and the harsh measures used today in questioning terrorism suspects.

Back then, they and their commanders wrestled with the morality of bugging prisoners’ cells with listening devices. They felt bad about censoring letters. They took prisoners out for steak dinners to soften them up. They played games with them. “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration’s methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance.

Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army’s Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. “I feel like the military is using us to say, ‘We did spooky stuff then, so it’s okay to do it now,’ ” said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.

When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece. “I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war,” said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City.

The veterans of P.O. Box 1142, a top-secret installation in Fairfax County that went only by its postal code name, were brought back to Fort Hunt by park rangers who are piecing together a portrait of what happened there during the war.

Nearly 4,000 prisoners of war, most of them German scientists and submariners, were brought in for questioning for days, even weeks, before their presence was reported to the Red Cross, a process that did not comply with the Geneva Conventions. Many of the interrogators were refugees from the Third Reich.

“We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice,” said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.

The interrogators had standards that remain a source of pride and honor. “During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone,” said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

The degree to which the men quoted here are representative of the group is unknowable from the piece, of course. Reporters will naturally focus on controversy and the vets supportive of current policy are much less interesting. Still, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these sorts of criticisms from professional interrogators.

Stephen Budiansky had a superb piece in the Atlantic Monthly a couple of years ago (exerpted at OTB at the time) noting that the most successful interrogators on both sides in WWII used psychology rather than torture to get information.

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others’ experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation—in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors”—invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

[...]

Every soldier, Moran observed, has a “story” he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator’s job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it.

[...]

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. “This line has infinite possibilities,” he explained. “If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable.” Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve “the first and most important victory”—getting “into the mind and into the heart” of the prisoner and achieving an “intellectual and spiritual” rapport with him.

I share Phil Carter‘s hope that we can learn from the experiences of the men of Fort Hunt and others who went before.

I think that sometimes, we forget how bad these guys had it. We think that we’re the first ones in American history to face an existential threat; that the world really changed and became more dangerous on 9/11/01, and that we’ve never been here before. But, in fact, we have been here before. Our nation has faced existential threats in its short history, like the Civil War and WWII, and we’ve prevailed. History offers many lessons for today about how we might view these threats, and respond in a way consistent with our nation’s core values.

Yes, jihadist terrorists are different in important ways than the soldiers of Germany and Japan. But human nature remains constant.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    While I have no doubt that we have interrogators that use rapport to achieve their goals, I’m left to wonder if the rush to violent methods is a result of a paucity of individuals conducting these interrogations familiar enough with the language and culture to achieve a rapport.

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  2. Triumph says:

    The degree to which the men quoted here are representative of the group is unknowable from the piece, of course. Reporters will naturally focus on controversy and the vets supportive of current policy are much less interesting.

    The liberal Washington Post will always focus on the Phony Soldiers instead of the real patriots who support the country.

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  4. JKB says:

    Just saw this over at the Small Wars Journal. Apparently, there is a drive to discourage those with the training to understand other cultures (anthropologists) from assisting in the war effort. Not surprising coming out of academia. The NY Times report (link at bottom of entry) on the Human Terrain Teams and their value in assisting commanders to achieve more with understanding than force is interesting.

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  5. anjin-san says:

    I bet some of these guys don’t wear flag pins either…

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  6. Steve Plunk says:

    Let’s just toss the straw men aside and logically look at this.

    Do these men have any experience with the interrogators and their methods of today or are they forming their opinions based upon the news reports? It’s difficult to criticize constructively if you don’t know the whole picture or an inaccurate information.

    The torture that is being spoken of is still in a gray area whether you agree with it or not and may not be used anymore. Some will continue to use this topic as a way to bash our military and intelligence leadership even if we have stopped using the controversial methods. It’s like picking at a scab to ensure it never heals.

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  7. brainy435 says:

    So the history lesson is: we should ignore the Geneva Conventions when dealing with an enemy who adheress to them by wearing uniforms and not attacking civilians, but strictly enforce them against an enemy that doesn’t?

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  8. Tlaloc says:

    The torture that is being spoken of is still in a gray area whether you agree with it or not and may not be used anymore.

    No steve, there is no gray area here. Subjecting prisoners to stress positions, hypotheria cells, water boarding- or as it used to be called the water torture, is not “intensive interrogation techniques”. It is torture plain and simple.

    The fact that there have been several deaths during the process puts us far from any supposed gray area these bastards would like to hide behind.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    Some will continue to use this topic as a way to bash our military and intelligence leadership

    Nice Red Herring Steve.

    I don’t know anyone who wants to “bash” the military, even here in the Bay Area. Support for the military runs very high.

    We do want to hold Bush accountable for flushing American values (torture is bad) and moving us towards the moral ground inhabited by the very people we are fighting.

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  10. Kathy says:

    Yes, jihadist terrorists are different in important ways than the soldiers of Germany and Japan. But human nature remains constant.

    Well said, James.

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  11. Anderson says:

    JKB is correct, both in that frustration with culture barriers leads to abuse and torture, and in that the training to deal with those barriers is almost deliberately lacking.

    After 9/11, the feds could have been expected to pour millions into Arabic programs at top colleges, etc. — but I suspect the fear was that too many of those programs would have exposed students to Teh Liberal …

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  12. jeff b says:

    The problem is that to be a war supporter today, you must be deliberately ignorant. No American can any longer take a principled, consistent stand in favor of the occupation of Iraq. You can’t use interrogation techniques involving a match of wits if your corps of interrogators is compised of witless dupes.

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  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    I don’t know anyone who wants to “bash” the military, even here in the Bay Area. Support for the military runs very high

    Greenbay?

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  14. mannning says:

    If you would condone torture in its most horrible state, then you would condone it in lesser torture states. The ultimate test has ever been the “Ticking Time Bomb Scenario”, where you have a prisoner whose credentials and cv indicate he would know of the location of a bomb about to explode. Time is of the essence, else a million citizens will probably be killed by the bomb, and more millions injured. Would you use any methods available to break this prisoner rapidly and save the millions of citizens, or not? Slick Willie said he would. This means he would most likely advise Hillary to do the same, were they in the WH again.

    So what would you do?

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  15. DC Loser says:

    The “Ticking Time Bomb” scenario is the ultimate red herring in the torture debate. It is the product of imaginative TV and movie scriptwriters. That people will frame a serious debate in terms of “24” tells me those who push this line have no real defense of their position. Tell me where a real life ticking time bomb has ever occurred? If we did indeed have success in such a scenario, why not bring it to the open as the ultimate proof of such necessity against barbarism?

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  16. JKB says:

    Pouring millions into Arabic programs at universities would have been useless given academia’s hostility to the military and the war. I’m sure those millions went to the Defense language school and other programs that could be targeted toward contributing to the war effort. Better to put those millions toward something useful, such as hiring natives in the region than welfare for islamic sympathizers at US universities. Academia has demonstrated by the anthropology petition to actively interfere with the military acquiring the knowledge and skills from “top colleges”. Better to hire those willing to work with the military directly and let academia put their skills toward making protest placards.

    The ticking bomb scenario is ignorant. If the time is of such an essence, the terrorist has only to resist for a short time to succeed. It is not likely that someone with this type of information would be so weak as to break quickly and they may even be willing to facilitate their death during the torture thus succeeding in their mission. In such a situation, the terrorist would assume he was dead in any case and thus have nothing to gain from talking.

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  17. [...] WWII Interrogators Criticize Today’s Methods Today’s WaPo fronts the story of the most interrogators of WWII, who had a reunion yesterday at Fort Hunt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the focus is on those who spoke out about the war in Iraq and the interrogation techniques now being used. For six decades, they held their silence. The group of World … [...]

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  18. Anderson says:

    Pouring millions into Arabic programs at universities would have been useless given academia’s hostility to the military and the war.

    Besides being factually incorrect — academia isn’t uniformly hostile to “the military,” and was certainly not hostile to “the war” if you mean the response to 9/11, which is what I was talking about — the comment also gives academics too much credit for principle. The opportunity to reap federal largesse would not have been rejected by more than a token number of schools.

    I think it’s hazardous to rely on DOD schools exclusively; academia can produce Ward Churchills, but it can also produce better-rounded people with a deeper grasp of cultural issues than one is likely to get from Arabic In 12 Weeks.

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  19. Bernadette says:

    Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary.

    How many of our interrogators speak fluent Arabic and can mimic regional dialects? How many spent 40 years in the Middle East as private citizens reaching out to a segment of the population that was not the mid to upper strata of society? I would wager none.

    This isn’t new information. Israel’s best interrogators are capable of adopting the accent of a specific Palestinian town and know the culture as if it were their own. They are adept at working the psychological angle (homesickness, pride, ego, blackmail).

    We simply don’t have these specific resources and, for a variety of reasons, we need to acknowledge that we can’t manufacture them.

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  20. JKB says:

    The opportunity to reap federal largesse would not have been rejected by more than a token number of schools.

    I certainly didn’t mean to insinuate that academia would have refused money out of principle. Quite the contrary, I believe they would have eagerly taken the money and returned very little benefit.

    While academia might have been eager to assist in 2001, it is in 2005-2007 that the beneficiaries of such a program would be ripe to add value. The intense programs at a DoD school might not be well rounded but it gets the skills in the field. The skills may not be perfected but they can be built on while working in the country rather than in theory.

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  21. Uncle Pinky says:

    Read this this morning and something about bugged me all day. Couldn’t quite nail it down until I’d had my coffee.

    “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.

    That there is an example of a high value target. The kind that we brought back to Fort Hunt, or kept in apartments in theater. This is the type of guy that you turn, rather than the type you break. Once they are known to be captured the immediate plans that they were involved with will change, but the underlying strategy and psychology stay the same. Their insights into the others still in play can be invaluable. That is why you seduce them.

    Your low level guy has extremely limited info that is much more time sensitive. You fly him back here and stick him in a townhouse in Vienna while you wine and dine him, the only info he can offer is well past its expiration date.

    This really is a different type of war. We’re not sweating prisoners to find the disposition or readiness of their armor. I agree that the “ticking time bomb scenario” has been overhyped, but we are not looking for their arms manufacturing works. We’re lucky to get a cache before it’s been used or moved. Cells can dissolve so quickly they seem to have never existed, and our Humint in the region is…sub-par.

    Setting aside ethical and moral considerations and viewing this as a business, there is no return in not breaking the small fish. Big fish, that’s a call for the guy on the ground.

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  22. mannning says:

    The TTB has either occurred before or it hasn’t. If it has, we may not know of it for many reasons. If it hasn’t occurred before, that is no reason to say it won’t occur in the future. If it does occur, then what will be the right response?

    To call it made-for-TV or ignorant does not do away with this possibility at all. To say that it is false because the person would be able to hold out for long enough is to evade the question again. One does not know how long a subject can last in advance, especially against fiendish tortures of the past over days and days. Thus, that is no reason to avoid the question of: should we, or shouldn’t we?

    It does point to the sharpness of the question that some would try to sweep it under the rug with an ignorant sweep of their pen. So when it does appear, we won’t react even so far as to consider the question! How very foolish, and how dishonest!

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  23. wolfwalker says:

    “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,”

    How do these guys know anything about how much information modern interrogators get from their subjects? Or how they do it? Even if one assumes the press reports are literally accurate in all details (an assumption no sane person should make), it should be obvious that not every detail of every interrogation gets reported on. For all we know, 99% of the intel we get from interrogations is acquired by the same methods these WW2 interrogators used.

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  24. graywolf says:

    That was then. This is now.
    BUT, count on the liberal America-hating media to look under every rock until they can find someone, ANYONE, to validate their rooting for the enemy stance.

    It it comes from the Washington Post, NYT, TIME, NEWSWEEK, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, I automatically dismiss it as enemy propoganda.

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  25. candi says:

    academia: refusing money out of principle

    Last month, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates authorised a $40m expansion of the programme, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 US combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Yet criticism is emerging in academia…some denounce the programme as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain.

    “While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,” the petition says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties”.
    US calls in the anthropologists to beat the Taliban

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  26. Andy says:

    It it comes from the Washington Post, NYT, TIME, NEWSWEEK, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, I automatically dismiss it as enemy propoganda.

    graywolf, I think you need to be a little bit more subtle in your spoofing of the insane right wing. I mean, “enemy propaganda” is just too obvious a give away that you’re just making fun of the conservative crazies. Truly excellent spoofery requires a delicate combination of subtlety and insanity.

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  27. mannning says:

    The statement that human nature remains constant seems a bit overdriven to me. Environmental factors can have a huge influence on shaping human nature to accept and internalize radically different beliefs, ideologies and behaviors.

    One merely has to cite the Kamikazes of Japan, the suicide bombers of Hamas, or the genocidal actions in Africa and Kosovo to realize that there is a fundamental difference in the very natures of these people from most of us in the West.

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  28. Tlaloc says:

    One merely has to cite the Kamikazes of Japan, the suicide bombers of Hamas, or the genocidal actions in Africa and Kosovo to realize that there is a fundamental difference in the very natures of these people from most of us in the West.

    Right because people in the west are never suicidal, willing to die for a cause, or genocidal.

    What orifice do you spew this garbage from?

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  29. mannning says:

    It is obviously a degree-to-which question, where the number of incidents of like kind in the West cannot possibly rival those cited, or the many others, such as the massive mass murders by minions of Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, and the Vietnamese Communists, to add a few more.

    Do I detect the idea that all men are morally equal, all societies are equal, all religions are equal, and that moral relativity is the correct position?

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  30. Tlaloc says:

    It is obviously a degree-to-which question, where the number of incidents of like kind in the West cannot possibly rival those cited, or the many others, such as the massive mass murders by minions of Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, and the Vietnamese Communists, to add a few more.

    Spoken like someone with a serious ignorance of history. Western civ has exceeded all the people you list combined, sonny. The Conquistador genocide of the aztecs *alone* far exceeded the nazi final solution in terms of body count. Add to that the genocide of all the other native americans, the slave trade, the various European nations colonial atrocities, the various Cold War machinations… well the numbers add up right quick.

    Do I detect the idea that all men are morally equal, all societies are equal, all religions are equal, and that moral relativity is the correct position?

    Moral relativity, certainly. Honestly it takes a pretty shallow and poorly thought out world view not to realize the truth of moral relativism. However your previous statements are another thing, which makes me suspect you don’t know what moral relativism is in the first place. Maybe once you know what it is you are talking about you’ll have better luck reaching the correct conclusion.

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  31. mannning says:

    Wonderful arithmetic and inclusion of irrelevant data. Aztecs! Totally incommensurate! You need to spend time looking up history from 1917 to now.

    So you equate the moral societies of the US and the UK to those of cannibal tribes in New Guinea. Marvelous! What a trip! In that case your moral compass is simply spinning around, with no North to guide you. Moral relativity has its main companion meme in atheism, which opens a religious gulf that is impossible to transit. Mere words cannot do it.

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  32. ken says:

    Real Americans do not employ torture. It is against our values. By employing torture conservatives have revealed themselves for what they are and betrayed America.

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  33. Tlaloc says:

    Wonderful arithmetic and inclusion of irrelevant data.

    Maybe next time you’ll think a little more carefully about using terms like “the west”, huh? Or are you really unaware that spain is part of western civilization?

    So you equate the moral societies of the US and the UK to those of cannibal tribes in New Guinea.

    Well the cannibal tribe of New Guinea have never nuked civilians. Never engaged in slavery on a scale resembling the US slave trade. How many civilizations are the cannibals from New Guinea responsible for wiping out? Like I said you really need to read a little history. It’ll prevent these kinds of embarrassments for you.

    Moral relativity has its main companion meme in atheism, which opens a religious gulf that is impossible to transit.

    It doesn’t require atheism, merely the lack of a god who is a moral authority. That actually doesn’t preclude all that many religions and schools of spirituality. The major monotheistic faiths certainly, but those are self negating anyway.

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  34. mannning says:

    Thank you for making my point so graphically! Either way you play it, the only thing you can rely upon is the utter differences in societies, the utter differences in their moral structures, and the overarching need to find or create more and more commonality of moral imperatives between societies to reduce conflicts and to promote the well-being of all. Promoting a common human morality in the long term seems like a good thing.

    Why, this idea is old hat! Hasn’t it been a theme of Christianity, in all of its sects, since its inception?

    (The West has far more coherence in many dimensions; even with Spain!)

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  35. Grewgills says:

    Promoting a common human morality in the long term seems like a good thing.

    Why, this idea is old hat! Hasn’t it been a theme of Christianity, in all of its sects, since its inception?

    Isn’t part of the problem we are facing that this has been a theme of all evangelical religions in all their sects from the beginning?
    The Christians promote their vision of a common human morality, as do the Muslims, Hindus, etc. Unfortunately their visions of a common human morality are not common to each other and many of them, particularly the more orthodox, are not willing to find common ground unless it is the ground they are already standing on.

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