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.