Part Two | I is for Interrogator
In the second half of the [55-page transcript] interview with military intelligence interrogator 'Simon' [still not his real name], we decided to discuss some of the myths regarding his profession as well as the rules and regulations that exist within it. If you haven't read the first half of the interview, you can find it here here. Enjoy. Thanks again to Simon for his time [three hours of it].
RP: I was thinking about this last night, but - if we take our idea of interrogators from the films we watch, then it’s all dark rooms and water-boarding and prison guards taking selfies… What do you think people’s perception is of your job versus what you actually do?
Simon: People’s perception of what we did or do, what goes on, is that you have high electricity bills and very high water bills, but that’s categorically not the truth.
RP: But torture does happen elsewhere?
Simon: Of course. Torture does happen and - horribly - it does work, otherwise, all the nefarious regimens in the world wouldn’t use it, but it’s not something I did. It’s not something we do. They do say it takes 3.5 days to break someone though.
RP: And the spies we see in films? The James Bond types?
Simon: The James Bonds of this world just want to do risky things to be a spy. They’re a danger to themselves and the whole organisation.
Grey men, you want grey men. No one knows you're there and no one raises an eyebrow at you...
“As a handler, you’re a grey man: you blend in, you don’t stand out. You go into a hotel, and no one looks at you. You don’t want to be devastatingly handsome, as you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. You want to be an ‘everyman’. You need to be able to be a ‘grey person’ if you do something so that when someone gives a description of you, they’re going to say, ‘Well, they were pretty normal really. He has a face and is of average height.’ That’s what you’re aiming for; no one knows you’re there, and no one raises an eyebrow at you… until it all goes noisy, and they go, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.'"
On Rules & Regulations:
RP: Were you ever disguised as something else? Like a psychiatrist or something, but actually, you were interrogating?
Simon: No, because you have very strict rules under RIPA and the Rose Engagements Human rights and all of that sort of stuff. It’s highly regulated. It’s one of the most overseen elements of probably any bleeding job in the country. There are lawyers and solicitors out there desperate to make money out of you and to cast you as a villain. And be that just for monetary reasons or military or political reasons, they’re desperate to get you, so you have to be ever so careful.
For Simon, 'violence is an absolute no.' In his field, ‘the worst we were allowed to do was shout at someone,’ but even then, there were strict regulations around how long and how close you were allowed to shout [no longer than 40 seconds]. He couldn’t touch the person he was interrogating nor get closer than 10 or 15 centimetres, so the movie-like scene of going nose to nose with someone wasn’t a thing. In fact, with every session filmed, Simon was watched as closely as the detainee. Losing his temper, too, was another ‘absolute no.’
There should be no emotions, you leave all emotions at the door...
Simon: You should never lose your temper. Whenever you go into the booth or the room with a captured person to interrogate him, you remain in control at all times.
RP: If you lose your temper, you lose control?
Simon: Exactly, so there should be no emotions - you leave all emotions at the door. Any emotions you show in the booth - I won’t say they’re controlled emotions…
RP: They’re calculated emotions?
Simon: Yeah, they have to be ersatz emotions, calculated. They’re a construct, but if someone is disengaging with you, you might try a shock tactic, but you can’t threaten, you can’t abuse, you can’t insult them. Going back to Hans Shaft [see blog post one], he just chatted. He was the most effective intelligence source of flow for German Intelligence in WW2, and he did it just by chatting to people. It shows that it works, too.
But Simon admits that sometimes a temper is lost. “If you’ve been reasonable until that point and apparently snap, sometimes it just makes the person think, ‘Crikey, maybe I’ve taken it too far, maybe I should start resetting and rethinking and having a chat with them’, but that was really the last measure, that was the worst measure as an interrogator, the one you wanted to avoid. Everything you found out prior from that person was to establish that rapport, that key — building a relationship and getting someone talking and now you’re shouting at them. That confrontational approach would only be used if a person had disengaged and you could find no other way of engaging with them. Because at that point, they still won’t engage, and there wasn’t much else you could do.”
When it comes to interrogation, there’s also a limited amount of time to get the interrogation completed. “There are parameters like they have to be fed, they have to sleep, they have to be fed their food. There are lots of things you have to do. Basically, you have to ensure the pastoral care of that person is put in place, so no, you don’t get an infinite amount of time to interrogate someone.”
I think you need to have a particular mindset to be an interrogator and I think some people describe it as being a sociopath...
RP: Does the method always justify the means? I mean, your own methods are so regulated, and there are lawyers and certain things you can’t do. Conscience-wise, with your enemy that you’re interrogating, you know from experience that they do some unspeakable shit, right? Personally, I could go home every night knowing that my methods are better than the enemy’s…
Simon: I think you need to have a particular mindset to be an interrogator, and I think some people describe it as being a sociopath.
RP: We interviewed an ex-CIA agent, and I would put money on him being a sociopath…
Simon: You need elements of that within you where you can detach yourself and not care, you cannot be affected massively by it. I always worked on the basis that if I could go home at the end of the day and sleep with a clear conscience, then that was fine.
If I got home and thought ‘yeah I did wrong’, then I did wrong and I was less… You work within the boundaries of the rules and the law, but its more that you have to live with yourself. That was my rule of thumb.
“So, within those boundaries, there are still nuances where you decide not to go down a route. There are other times where you’d love to go down a certain route, but you can’t because that’s the rule. But there are certain other times where I could have done stuff, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t sit square with me and my morality’, and while your morals might be flexible, you have to have them, you have to have a moral base because otherwise there is the potential to descend into a pit of hell where everything becomes acceptable when it’s not. You need clarity as an individual as to what you perceive to be right and wrong."
When Rapport is Real:
RP: Was there ever someone you were interrogating that you got on with, knowing they’d done awful things?
Simon: I got on very well with a notorious Birmingham gang member once, a guy who shot a very young girl. The thing is, I found him very likeable. I thought he was a very bright, intelligent, decent bloke and - had I been in his shoes - I could easily have ended up in the same situation.
RP: If he’d been born into a different environment, he would have ended up somewhere different?
Simon: Yes, but you can’t get away from the fact that what he did was completely horrible. So, you might have this understanding, but what he just did was just fucking wrong. You can’t get away from that fact that when people say, ‘Ah, he must be horrible’, you’re thinking, ‘Well, actually, he’s a bloke I’d quite happily go out for a few beers with’. You can’t say that because what he did was just wrong.
Across his military intelligence career, Simon typically worked interrogating members of the IRA and Taliban, while his time in the prisons centred more around murderers, rapists and terrorists. As a skill set, his job was to find that common ground with them, building a rapport and trust with a human otherwise despised while expressing sympathy for a situation, as seen in his anecdote above. For him, however, there was only ever one truly ‘evil’ person he’d met, which he discussed in detail with us but doesn’t seem right to cover here. When it came to being unnerved, however, there was one type of person in particular that often took him off guard.
Zealots, I don’t trust any zealot.
“Anyone that says they’re a zealot, anyone that is fanatical about something, they ring little alarm bells in my ear. I couldn’t care less what they say they’re fanatical about, but as soon as someone says that, that says to me that you have the potential to be divisive because you’re not willing to listen to any other point of view other than your own point of view. Whatever they are, whether it’s environmental, religious, political, whatever, if there are zealots, they’re potentially a very dangerous person. Everyone wants freedom of free speech as long as it's their free speech and not somebody else’s. You have to understand when the other side might be right, too; you have to figure out where they’re coming from, but that’s what we’ve said all along. It’s about mindsets, motivations and expectations, but a zealot is always stuck.”
Do I miss being an interrogator? Yes. Every day. Every day...
"I miss being out of the loop; that’s what I really miss, and funnily enough, you miss the danger. It becomes quite addictive that. People say, ‘Oh, that must be really scary’, but for me, it has a point. If it wasn’t scary, it would be boring. So, I miss that risk element. When you wake up in the morning, you know you’re still going to go to bed at night, and I miss that. Being out of that loop, that I find really frustrating, and as I say, I miss the work, I absolutely loved it."
Photo by cottonbro studio