Sherwood F. Moran interrogating a prison on Guadalcanal   

This week’s Senate committee report on the involvement of the CIA in torture and mistreatment of detainees has exposed a bitter debate between human-rights-first interrogators and battle-hardened interrogators.

Former US Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman represents the human-right-first group. “As a career interrogator, I know that the lawful, humane methods for acquiring intelligence are also the most effective,” he says. “Today’s report only reinforces this fact and makes it publicly available to the American people. There is no need to debate this any longer. Now it’s time to chart a new course for the future, one that will not only respect human rights, but will also keep America safe.”

Now working as Director of Strategic Research at The Soufan Group, Kleinman backs his claims up with psychological research published in academic journals.

On the battle-hardened, whatever-it-takes side is Jason Beale, the pseudonym for an interrogator with years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. His bitter complaints about the Senate committee’s investigation were published in The Weekly Standard in mid-November. Without naming him his words about Kleinman and his ilk were volcanic with rage.

“They are opportunists who, almost uniformly, spent a  relatively small portion of their professional lives engaged in  standard interrogation be it criminal or intelligence-­‐related and they bundled their manufactured credibility and their  personal opinion into a nice little self-righteous quote package,  for sale to the highest bidder.”

Which side represents the old-school interrogator? Surprisingly, it could be Colonel Kleinman. In a sense, his tactics were proved effective during World War II, when the stakes were even higher than they are now in the War on Terror.

The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an intelligence-gathering unit set up in 2010 by President Obama, recently released a publication outlining its philosophy. It’s clear that two of the best interrogators in World War II have had a great influence on their approach.

One was a German, Hanns Joachim Scharff, a Luftwaffe interrogator who was so successful that some of the airmen whom he interrogated were tried for treason after the War because American authorities thought that they had willingly told the enemy everything.

The other was an American, Sherwood F. Moran, who interrogated Japanese prisoners at Guadalcanal. Moran’s career is particularly interesting because he operated under conditions which were close to the “ticking bomb” scenario. Often he was speaking with prisoners who were still bleeding from wounds while under sniper fire and air bombardment. In 1944 he wrote some notes for interrogators which have become a classic in the intelligence community.

One of the secrets of his approach was that he treated the prisoner with the respect and dignity due to another human being.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectlysafe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word “safe.” That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the “enemy” stuff, and the “prisoner” stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

The Japanese had a reputation for fanaticism and stubbornness. Yet by taking an interest in them as persons and treating them with concern, Moran managed to get them to share what they knew:

On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, “Won’t you please come and talk to me every day.” (And yet people are continually asking us, “Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?”)

But neither was Moran soft. He needed intelligence urgently during the Guadalcanal campaign. “Don’t let your warm human interest, your genuine interest in the prisoner, cause you to be side-tracked by him! You should be hard-boiled but not half-baked. Deep human sympathy can go with a business-like, systematic and ruthlessly persistent approach.”

Moran’s background made him ideally suited for his job. He had been a Protestant missionary in Japan for more than 20 years and spoke the language perfectly. In 1948 he returned in Japan for another seven years of missionary work.

He brought his deep Christian virtues to the battlefield: mutual respect, cheerfulness, and hard work. His social work in Japan and his interrogation in Guadalcanal sprang from the same values; there was no disconnect. “He was probably the only Marine of his era who never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and never cursed. For their discipline and comradeship he loved them like brothers,” his family recalled in a memoir.

Nowadays the enemy is different; the style of warfare is different. What remains the same is the common humanity of the prisoner and the interrogator. What the experience of Sherwood F. Moran and others shows is that treating a captive as a fellow human being is not a soft option.

Does this work with all interrogators? What Moran thought may be surprising. For him, it was not a matter of exerting superior force, but of having “character”, of being a man whom the prisoner will respect.

Of course all this dignity emphasis is based on the fear that the prisoner will take advantage of you and your friendship; the same idea as that a foreman must swear at his construction gang in order to get work out of them. Of course there always is the danger that some types will take advantage of your friendliness. This is true in any phase of life, whether you are a teacher, a judge, an athletic trainer, a parent. But there is some risk in any method. But this is where the interpreter’s character comes in, that I have so emphasized earlier in this article. You can’t fool with a man of real character without eventually getting your fingers burned.

Was this the problem with the CIA interrogators? Did they lack that indefinable thing called character?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.