When most folks think of interrogation, they think of their favorite police shows, they think of the old “good-cop/bad-cop” routine, they think of criminal confessions, or they think of “making someone talk” through various and sundry unpleasant methods. Popular culture has cemented these ideas in our collective psyche. Some of these images are illegal, some are ineffective, and some represent a genuine portrayal of a portion of what an interrogation might entail, but they all fail to address the most fundamental aspects of interrogation – asking a good question. The foundation of any successful interrogation is the ability to formulate cogent questions and ask them in a logical sequence in order to get useful answers.
The word interrogate is rooted in Latin and quite literally means to question or to examine. To interrogate does not have anything to do with gaining compliance or with subsequent evaluation of answers, though interrogation is commonly understood today to include multiple phases including preparation, approach (for rapport and compliance), questioning, closing of the session, and dissemination of the information gathered. The fundamental portion is questioning, and while this seems straightforward, many people misunderstand how difficult it can be to properly prepare and formulate clear, concise questions, as well as the difficulty involved in managing multiple topics of interest that may arise in a single questioning session.
It is appropriate to differentiate between typical interrogations for law enforcement purposes and to intelligence interrogations. Law enforcement normally focuses on gaining a confession with relation to a crime that has already occurred, where the information will be used in court for obtaining a conviction. Intelligence interrogation is employed to gain information related to future events and is not normally oriented toward use in a court of determination of guilt or innocence. These are generalities; I do not mean to imply that a law enforcement interrogation can never be geared toward gaining information about future events, nor do I mean to imply that an intelligence interrogation will never result in information of relevance to a judicial proceeding. Usually, law enforcement and intelligence interrogations diverge along the lines described, and they are each governed by separate legal authorities. The desired outcomes will impact the formulation of questions and the necessity of reinforcing approach strategies throughout the session; otherwise, there are key questioning strictures that will aid an interrogator in either context to gather the right information in the most expeditious manner.
A good question should elicit a narrative response on one topic. Well-formed questioning plans will allow the interrogator to fully exploit a given topic and then transition to the next topic. In order to ensure a topic is fully exploited, the interrogator should be prepared to use direct questioning, which employs all of the basic interrogatives (who/what/when/where/how/why), and then follow-up with “else” and “other” as appropriate. Using these basic interrogatives helps ensure questions are focused and clear, and avoids many of the more common questioning pitfalls. In addition to basic topical and follow-up questions, interrogators may employ non-pertinent, repeat, and control questions as part of their direct questioning strategy.
Non-pertinent questions are questions that do not relate directly to the questioning objectives. They can be used to conceal the questioning objectives or to strengthen rapport. These questions could arguably be considered part of the approach, but their primary utility is in keeping a questioning session moving forward without becoming too mechanical and to avoid alerting the person being interrogated to critical information gaps – especially if the subject is not in custody or could otherwise communicate information shortfalls to hostile actors.
Repeat questions ask for the same information obtained in response to earlier questions. They are a method to confirm accuracy of important details. Repeat questions should not be exact repetitions of an earlier question. Instead, the question should be phrased in a different manner that should elicit the same answer if the subject is being truthful. The repeat question should be separated in time from the original question so that the subject cannot immediately identify the question as repetitive. Repeat questions may also be used to return to previous topics in need of further explanation.
Control questions are developed from confirmed information from other sources. In this situation, the applicant is likely unaware that the interviewer knows the information. Control questions serve to validate the truthfulness of the applicant’s responses. Answers that contradict what the interviewer knows to be true indicate deception in most cases. Some possible exceptions include the subject misunderstanding the question, the subject believing the information to be true but simply being wrong, or the control information from which the interrogator is questioning could be incorrect. When control questions indicate a lack of truthfulness on the part of the subject the interrogator must employ follow-up questions to verify that the subject is deceptive to rule out the exceptions mentioned here. The interrogator should look for patterns over the course of the questioning session. If the subject is off on every single control question the likelihood of deliberate deception is higher than if the subject is incorrect about a single control question.
Keeping questions topically focused and dealing with a single interrogative per question is a useful method for ensuring the interrogator efficiently collects relevant information and avoids confusion or deception. Conversely, there are certain formulations of questions that are nearly certain to elicit confusing or incorrect information, and these should be avoided as much as possible. These types of questions include yes/no, leading, negative, compound, and vague questions. A brief explanation of each follows.
Yes/no questions are straight-forward in that they only elicit yes or no responses, such as “did you make the bomb” or “is John Smith planning an attack.” The issues here are that the yes/no response allows the subject to answer the question honestly without providing any meaningful information. If you need to know who made the bomb and you believe the subject knows, the correct question should begin with one of the basic interrogatives, such as “who built the bomb?” If you believe someone is planning an attack, one of the questions you might want answered is who is planning the attack. Yes/no questions are limiting in terms of information potentially gathered and facilitate deception, in that the subject can cooperate without proving any information. Some argue that there is a proper time and place for a yes/no question; probably, but these instances are rare. A yes/no might be employed as a non-pertinent question for rapport-building or approach maintenance. Perhaps there could be utility in determining the relevance of a line of questioning, such as determining whether a subject likely has information on a given topic. However, I advocate using yes/no as little as possible, as you can make the same determinations for suitable lines of questioning through direct questioning, and major shifts in questioning style can highlight the information gaps to the subject, queuing them when to be deceptive.
Leading questions are questions that are constructed to provide the subject with the expected answer. These questions are often yes/no form as well, but are different in that they provide the subject the specific answer that the interrogator wants. Examples: “you made the bomb, didn’t you?” “John Smith is planning an attack, isn’t he?” Leading questions are inappropriate because their purpose is to LEAD the subject toward a specific conclusion that the interrogator has already reached. The interrogator feeds answers to the subject or confuses and traps the subject. The intent of an interrogation is to obtain accurate information and should not be structured in a way that excludes information that might contradict running speculation on a topic. As mentioned before, the information we have on hand may be inaccurate. The interrogator should ask direct questions that allow the subject to provide a complete answer, as previously stated.
Negative questions are questions that contain a negative word in the question itself such as, “Were you not arrested in 2003?” If the subject says “yes,” the interrogator will not be certain whether the applicant meant “yes, I was arrested” or “yes, I was not arrested.” Negative questions serve to confuse both the subject and the interrogator. In other instances, the insertion of negative words within a question makes the question impossibly open-ended. For example, “Who wasn’t with you when you were arrested?” Keep questions free of negatives to keep the questions and answers clear and concise.
Compound questions consist of two questions asked at the same time. For example, “Before you entered the US, were you living in Iran or Turkey?” They are easily misunderstood, tend to limit the scope of the question unnecessarily, and may confuse the subject and result in an ambiguous answer. Compound questions allow the subject to evade a part of the question or to give an incomplete answer. In this example, the better question is, “where did you live prior to entering the United States?” The interrogator can then verify dates and ask follow-on question regarding where the subject previously lived, if relevant to the interrogation.
Vague questions do not have enough information for the subject to understand exactly what the interrogator is asking. Vague questions confuse the subject, allow the subject to evade, and generally waste time. They result in answers that may confuse or mislead the interrogator and require further follow-up questions. Broad questions like “what is ISIS up to,” or “what can you tell me about John Smith,” “describe the bomb” lack specificity and do not lend themselves to complete, concise responses, even if the subject wants to cooperate.
This basic overview of questioning leaves a lot of components out. We haven’t covered approach strategies, detecting deception, closing the interrogation, or any of the other work required outside of the interrogation to ensure that questioning plans and approach strategies make sense or to verify information collected during the interrogation. As mentioned up front, the parts that seem glamorous – gaining a subject’s cooperation and identifying lies – are not the most important component of the interrogation. These things are necessary, but without sound questioning strategies even interrogating a knowledgeable and cooperative subject will not yield usable information, and information is the goal of interrogation. We will, however, address the other components of interrogation in subsequent blogs.