24 abril, 2013
What Game of Thrones Can Reveal About the Boston Suspect’s Interrogation
Want to know how U.S. interrogators will question Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Watch the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Seriously. Perhaps the best pop-culture illustration of what it actually goes into extracting valuable, reliable information from a helpless prisoner has come, improbably, from HBO’s epic fantasy drama. That lesson is subtle and uncomfortable — and it will likely be on display during the interrogation of the accused Boston Marathon bomber.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not be tortured — something that, depressingly, prominent Americans lament. Weak as he is at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess hospital, Tsarnaev’s reportedly already cooperating with his interrogators, telling them that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated last week’s attacks, and that he got the rough blueprints for the bombs from the English-language webzine of al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate.
“We do not need to abase ourselves and become beasts,” observes Glenn Carle, a former CIA interrogator at one of the agency’s infamous “black site” prisons. But that doesn’t mean interrogators are angels. “I suppose,” he continues, “angels manipulate, too.” And to understand the dynamic at play, cue up the past few episodes of Game of Thrones. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.)
At the beginning of the third season, Theon Greyjoy is brutally tortured. He’s confused, terrified, naked, utterly helpless, strapped to a wooden X. His captors burr a device into his foot and stick knives beneath his fingernails while demanding information from the self-declared heir to the Iron Islands. He yells out things that are superficially true — he sought to “bring glory to my House” by seizing the castle of Winterfell from House Stark — but substantively misleading, as viewers who’ve seen Theon’s backstory know, and ultimately not very useful to his captors. Anything to make the torture abate.
But then a mysterious young man removes the Abu Ghraib-style hood from Theon’s head during a private moment. He lets Theon out of the restraints and identifies himself as an agent of his sister, Yara. The stranger smuggles him out of the dungeon, gives him a horse and tells him to ride east to freedom. When his captors chase him, the stranger dramatically kills them. If there’s any doubt about the stranger’s loyalties in Theon’s mind, the arrows through the chests of his tormentors erases it.
Things got interesting for Theon in the latest episode, when they make for a castle that the stranger says is in Greyjoy hands. There’s still danger, however, since he tells Theon that some of the men there are loyal to Theon’s father, who doesn’t care what happens to Theon. As they make their way through the tunnels, Theon breaks down to the only man he now believes he can trust. He confesses, with some prompting, that he regrets betraying the Starks to prove his worth to his unappreciative father. And then, right as the stranger is about to open the iron door that Theon believes will lead to his salvation, he blurts out the most important fact of all: the Stark children, heirs to Winterfell, are still alive, wandering somewhere in the woods of the North.
It’s all a ruse, as Theon learns to his horror, when his would-be savior leads him back to the same dungeon, a malicious and frightful grin on the man’s face. (I won’t give spoilers as to who that stranger is.) That ruse succeeded where torture failed. It got Theon to reveal the depth of discord within House Greyjoy and let his captors in on the most important secret in the North, something of immense value to House Stark.
That is the reality of interrogation. It works best when interrogators develop a rapport with their captors and earn their trust. It works worst when it relies on brutality. That’s a lesson that the recent film Zero Dark Thirty displayed, but (as my assessment of the movie missed) got lost to a lay audience under the gruesome presentation of torture and its narrative proximity to the successful Osama bin Laden hunt. More often, on shows like 24 or even the more-sophisticated Homeland, and in decades of Batman comics, brutality and the threat of brutality gets the baddie to cough up the info.
But Game of Thrones went further, to a much realer place. There’s a misleading dichotomy in the American national-security debate about interrogation, between the brutality of torture and the ostensible niceties of traditional interrogation. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits,” a former World War II military interrogator recalled in 2007. The FBI and military interrogators of the 9/11 suspects after those suspects had been removed from off-the-books CIA torture chambers called themselves the “Clean Team.” But just because you’re not torturing someone doesn’t necessarily make you clean.
The stranger outwitted Theon. He did so through raw emotional and psychological manipulation. He leveraged Theon’s helplessness, pride and desperation. Veteran interrogators, like Glenn Carle, find that very familiar.
Carle was a CIA operative who interrogated detainees at one of those off-the-books prisons in Afghanistan. He has a conflicted relationship with his actions: Carle says he didn’t abuse anyone, but he acknowledges he was part of a mechanism of abuse. Even in those so-called “clean” interrogations, manipulation is crucial.
“It’s central to everything you do. People react hostily when I say this, as if I’m saying something that’s a big revelation,” Carle explains. “If I want to have a teller behind a counter at a bank do me a favor, to pay attention to me, not blow me off, then of course what you do is establish some sort of rapport, some sort of relationship. You say ‘that’s a nice dress, how ’bout them Red Sox,’ something to establish an initial bond.” The rapport does not have to be genuine to work.
Carle expects such techniques to be central to the interrogation of gravely wounded Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was charged yesterday in federal court. Tsarnaev will not be physically harmed. But like Theon, “he’s scared,” Carle predicts, “he’s naive and he’s deluded while being relatively liked. We know that already.” That gives interrogators an opportunity that isn’t easily discussed in polite society.
“Based on that you see how he reacts,” Carle continues. “If he’s enthusiastic talk about religion, then you talk about religion. If he’s hostile, you respond to his hostility, either you can see if being sterner will get him to pay attention, or if you want sympathize with that hostility. Say, ‘Yeah, we’ve all been screwed by the system; I understand your frustrations, here you are, an honorable man, surrounded by an uncaring and superficial society and someone had to do something to wake people up. I wouldn’t have done what you did, Dzhokhar, but I certainly understand the anger you felt.’ That’s it.
“All of that,” Carle says flatly, “I would characterize as manipulation.”
That initial manipulation allows interrogators to go further, and be what Carle calls “more blatantly manipulative.” They imply that they know everything about Tsarnaev’s travel — a technique known in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation as “We Know All” — to get him to blurt out or confirm what they suspect. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers aren’t necessarily obstacles to the interrogation either: in similar cases, defense attorneys counsel suspects that cooperation is their only hope for leniency.
“Of course you manipulate,” Carle says. “We aren’t solely Walt Disney characters if we don’t torture. No one simply sits there and says, ‘Hello sir, please tell me the truth now.’”
Interrogation is an ugly business. It’s ugly even when interrogators don’t lay a finger on detainees or threaten them. Whatever emotions Tsarnaev expresses — fear, pride, hope — will be fuel for his interrogation. Unlike Theon Greyjoy, Tsarnaev won’t be tricked into thinking he’s free, but Game of Thrones still demonstrated a lesson about what can happen in an interrogation when a detainee thinks he’s around people he can trust. And since none of these scenes take place in the A Song of Ice And Fire books that form the show’s source material, perhaps the showrunners wanted to make a subtle point about what brutality can’t yield but manipulation might.
As it happens, Carle hasn’t seen the episode. He’s not going to watch the show until he finishes reading the stack of A Song of Ice And Fire books he’s got piled up. He was turned onto the series, he says, by an old CIA friend. “I don’t think she’s an interrogator,” he says, slyly.