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Ethics in Interrogation

Updated on August 3, 2013
Interrogation has stigma of being all out torture sessions until a subject confesses
Interrogation has stigma of being all out torture sessions until a subject confesses

Society in America teaches everyone right and wrong at an early age. The concept of doing the right things is firmly ingrained in all of us. The entire curriculum of preschool and kindergarten relate to developing morals and functioning as a part of the American culture. Everything from the fables and fairy tales—all of which have a moral at the end—teaches us what is expected and desirable to function as a productive member of the general public. Activities like group playtime and recess teach us to interact with others while the “clean up song” teaches everyone to work together in cleaning up. There are some people who can go most of their life and never have their morals challenged whereas there are others who find that they are constantly in a dilemma as to the best course of action to take in a given scenario where not their conscience, but the casualties or survivors will determine if they made the right choice. Ground-pounding infantry need to make split-second judgments whether or not to pull a trigger on the preteen running at them with a knife, or the grenade launcher a hundred yards away before they or worse, their entire team gets killed. The difference is, their dilemma only lasts a fraction of a second and once they commit and execute, there is no turning back. There are others who don’t have such a simple battle to fight. When making decisions as to what is ethical or unethical, the Tactical Human Intelligence Collectors conducting interrogations are often faced with such moral quandaries as operational necessities combined with a commitment to front line units that will be using whatever intelligence he can glean from the detainee, pitted against humane treatment of prisoners, or making promises that can’t be kept to gain high value or time-sensitive information. Ethical decisions aren’t limited merely to whether or not to resort to a certain tactic or not, but also acts of omission such as whether or not to report such incidents. In other cases the issue becomes what to do when it seems that no action is being taken to correct the situation.

There are a myriad of techniques and tactics at the disposal of a well-trained interrogator; in fact, the US Army teaches eighteen. There is also a hidden toolbox of tactics that aren’t taught and some that are not even condoned by the US government. Some things are obviously ok, such as simply asking questions and shooting holes in a prisoner’s story when he is lying. Perhaps an interrogator may choose to honestly inform a prisoner that they won’t be released until they have cooperated and further pointing out that while they are in custody, their family won’t have anyone to protect them and it’s not unheard of for terrorists to kill a person’s family because they think that he is disclosing information. As for those things that are not condoned by the US government, torture tactics such as those commonly used by the Iraqi police when seeking a confession. Their techniques include but are not limited to sensory deprivation, physical beatings, and stringing prisoners up by piano wire, threatening the prisoner and his or her family just to name a few. The US tends to advocate the use of psychology in lieu of physical torture to elicit information in a timely fashion. In fact, America also explicitly prohibits the use of any form of torture. Field Manual 2-22.3, The Army Manual for interrogators Which President Obama has applied across the board, specifically states, “The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US government.”

This of course leaves a gray area whereas long as the prisoner doesn’t get injured or hurt in a mental or physical capacity, it’s probably legal. This is not to be confused with hurting such as mental anguish or depression, which are expected to occur during the detainment process. In fact, in his book, Mackey speaks of “psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and non-coercive ruses.”1 Essentially, that is a free pass to lie convincingly, cheat (by prior research and planning) and steal [control of the situation] as long as the prisoner is uninjured and in good health afterwards, anything else should be fair game.

Lying violates the eighth of the Ten Commandments found in Christianity. The Ten Commandments coincidentally have a strong influence on the American legal system. If one should ever doubt that, he or she should see how many laws are aligned with the commandments. Furthermore, swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” on a Bible in court should be a good indicator. Finishing with “So help me God.” Should dispel any doubts. In any case, if Christians can’t lie and interrogators are expected to lie, it seems only logical that Christians shouldn’t be interrogators. Muslims on the other hand, have a concept known as taqiyya , which means that deception and concealment are permissible when necessary.2 Lying seems necessary to level the playing field and to beat them at their own game in a manner of speaking. Perhaps the Muslims would make the best interrogators if they weren’t usually the ones being interrogated these days.

Lying, cheating and stealing are three things that Marines never do. Cheating is unfair or “unethical” because it gives one person an extra edge that the competition otherwise doesn’t have. For an interrogator to research a subject and deliberately play on a prisoner’s motivations, weaknesses and character flaws somehow seems just a little unfair, after all, the people that are captured didn’t volunteer to go head to head in a battle of wits with an interrogator who was specifically trained to tear them apart psychologically. On top of that, they have no idea who their interrogator will be so they don’t even have the opportunity to figure them out until they walk into the interrogation booth. One has to admit though, in a game where score is kept in lives lost and lives saved, it somehow seems like cheating may actually be the right thing to do.

It’s been said that the only thing worse than a liar is a thief, and here we have a two for one special. Stealing control of the situation before the prisoner who is experiencing the shock of capture even has a chance to get his bearings and react to the situation can in no way be construed as a fair fight. Their mind will be swimming; they will be disoriented and scared because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Psychologically jumping a prisoner while he’s still on edge and anxious, before he can relax and settle down will usually yield a lot of good leads if not useful information. All of these things are within the boundaries of the law, but does that make them right? Or even if they are still wrong, they are being done for a “good cause” so, does doing something wrong to accomplish something good, make it “right?”

Mackey also talks about the Al Qaeda interrogation resistance manual which makes the jobs of interrogators all the more difficult. To further level the playing field, one must step up their side of the competition. The issue becomes that in stepping up , one may incidentally step over the line between legal and illegal. In any case, within that gray area, there are shades of gray that grow darker as they move closer to the black side of the line clearly marked by legal standards and government regulations. However, close to the edge is a dark gray area where interrogators must make decisions as to how far they are willing to go and more importantly, how far they should descend into the abyss. One example is waterboarding which when preformed properly will leave no marks on the body, but depending on the version, the prisoner is subjected to incredible suffering or the intense fear of drowning. After the session, however, the victim is generally in good health and can walk away with nothing more than “the shakes” that most people get when faced with their own mortality.

“The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death,” Peters says. That was — and still is — what makes waterboarding such an attractive interrogation technique, he points out: “It causes great physical and mental suffering, yet leaves no marks on the body.”3

A first-hand witness (who will not be named for security reasons) to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib felt compelled to report what he observed to his chain of command only to discover that they were powerless to react because the unit that controlled the Joint Interrogation Facility (JIF) was turning a blind eye and practically encouraging detainee abuse. In fact, there were a number of other things in progress beyond the maltreatment of prisoners. As an interrogator, the prisoners weren’t actually this witness’s responsibility. The Military Police had complete control them and the facilities where they stayed as well as the bivouac where the interrogators were staying. Mackey explained the relationship between interrogators, prisoners, and the MPs, saying “…technically, we merely ‘leased’ prisoners from the MPs while they were in the JIF for questioning.”4 An interesting fact should be noted; the military police that ran Abu Ghraib thought that they were actually helping interrogators by “softening up” the prisoners. They meant well, so one could understand how they thought that they were doing the right thing. Then again, things didn’t turn out so well, so the media says that they were wrong and most people simply accept and regurgitate the media’s position on an issue. One should ask, “If the MP’s felt that they were doing something wrong, would they have continued?” To really take a stand on the position, one would have to decide what determines if something is right and wrong.

One school of thought called Deontological ethics believes that the intent of the agent (person performing an action) should determine the “right” or “wrong” of an action.5 For example, Robin Hood would do something wrong, stealing from the rich, but his intention was to give to the poor, so his motivation was what made his decision “right” by deontological standards. Had he intended to keep the money for himself it would have been wrong. Once Robin Hood had a plan, the morality of his decision was already established. If something unexpected occurred, it wouldn’t change that his decision was “right.” For example, if all peasants found to be in possession of stolen money that Robin Hood had given them were imprisoned or executed, Robin Hood’s impact had a limited range from conception to completion. Once he delivered the money, or even if he was unable to get the money to the poor, he still would have been “right” by deontological standards because that’s what he wanted to do.

The antithesis of deontology is teleology. It comes from the Greek telos, which means end or completion. Being concerned solely with the end state of affairs, teleology measures “right” and “wrong” not by the intent, but by the impact.6 This school of thought counters deontology with the argument that right and wrong can only be determined by the outcome of a situation regardless of the motivations of the agent. For example, to continue the above scenario with Robin Hood, if the peasants were killed or captured for possession of the stolen money that he gave them, then his decision to steal from the rich and give to the poor would have been “wrong” because it didn’t turn quite as well as he’d intended.

Take these two opposing viewpoints; pull Robin Hood out and drop and interrogator in his place and the situation changes dramatically. Would it be wrong for an interrogator to resort to torture to get much needed information from a high value target before it’s too late and the information becomes outdated. After all, with that information, he could save lives and help win a war. What if Bin Laden is hiding in a cave for tonight only? A deontologist would understand that even if it was a violation of the Law of War, NATO sanctions and the Geneva Convention, the interrogator meant well. But perhaps that would be wrong for no reason beyond the fact that the law says so. Then again, adultery is legal; does that make it right? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to stay well within the limits set by the law unlike the African American Civil Rights movement of the mid 1900s. It’s commonly accepted that murder is wrong, so is allowing someone to die by inaction or ineffective action any different than killing them personally. What if that prisoner has information that will prevent the deaths of an entire company of troops? An act of omission that leads to the deaths of others is arguably just as bad as killing them directly. Furthermore, teleologically speaking, it would be wrong.

In the end, one must let their conscience be their guide as they walk the thin gray line between right and wrong as they ensure that it isn’t crossed and keeping in mind that what is right isn’t always legal and what is legal isn’t always right.


1Chris Mackey, The Interrogators Task Force 500 and America’s Secret War Against Al Qaeda (New York: Back Bay Books, 2004), xxviii.

2 David Ignatius, Agents of Innocence (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987) 14.

3EricWeiner, Waterboarding: A Tortured History [Online]; Available from,; Accessed 01 August 2008.

4 Mackey, The Interrogators , 175

5 Andrew Chrucky, Dictionary of Philosophy [Online]; Available from Accessed 15 August 2008

6 Chrucky, Dictionary of Philosophy [Online].


Behnke, Stephen. 2007. ETHICS ROUNDS: A call for vignettes . Online. Available from Internet, Accessed 01 August 2008.

Chrucky, Andrew. 2004. Dictionary of Philosophy . Online, Available from Internet. Accessed 15 August 2008

Gordon, Dick. 2005. The Ethics of Interrogation. Online. Available from Internet, Accessed 15 July 2008

Ignatius, David. 1987. Agents of Innocence . New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Krasny, Michael. 2007. The APA, Ethics and Interrogation . Onlilne, Available from Internet, Accessed 23July 2008

Mackey, Chris. 2004. The Interrogators Task Force 500 and America’s Secret War Against Al Qaeda. New York: Back Bay Books.

Miles, Steven. 2007. Medical Ethics and the interrogation of Guantanamo063 . Online. Available from Internet, Accessed 18 August 2008

Sermons, Lydia. 2005. APA Commends AMA’s Commitment to Review Ethics on Interrogation . Online. Available from Internet, Accessed 19 July 2008

Weiner, Eric. 2007. Waterboarding: A Tortured History . Online. Available from Internet, Accessed 01 August 2008.


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    • Lance Crowe profile imageAUTHOR

      Lance Crowe 

      8 years ago

      From the outside looking in, people can be pitted against each other in situations like this. In the book "how full is your bucket", it discusses how POWs were psychologically contolled and allowed their fellow countrymen to die without lifting a finger. They became passive towards each other and life in general. There was no need to control them because they controlled themselves. Even today it's evident in different school systems, students that come from ghettos are generally treated like they're going to fail and no one is surprised when they do. There is an implicit caste system and they are not encouraged to break free of the box society attempts to put them in.

    • mquee profile image


      8 years ago from Columbia, SC

      Hi Lance,

      I did view the psychological experiment performed at Stanford University. It was not at all surprising to me how events and personalities transpired. I believe that society in general has been victimized by snippets of some of the controls used in the prison system. The most obvious representation of this was how Hitler and the Nazis divided the population by race and class, using these things to avoid the real issues of the economy and lack of jobs.

      Anyway,that's another story and the experiment was very interesting. Thanks for the info and a very good hub.

    • Lance Crowe profile imageAUTHOR

      Lance Crowe 

      8 years ago


      You may be interested in a psychological experiement conducted at Stanford Univerity. It shows that people in certain positions will act a certain way based on their perception of what the role "should" be like.

    • mquee profile image


      8 years ago from Columbia, SC

      A good explanation of this process. One thing though, there are those who are professional in their undertaking while a very small percentage of people get pleasure from being tortuous or just plain mean. These few can make it rough with those who are trying to do an honest job. This is one thing I saw while serving in Vietnam. Thanks for a detailed hub.

    • Lance Crowe profile imageAUTHOR

      Lance Crowe 

      8 years ago

      Hey hotaru,

      Thanks for posting. First let me point out that in the military intelligence arena, interrogations aren't geared towards getting a confession so fear of punishment isn't really a stong reason to keep information bottled up. The most common theme will be either loyalty to the detainee's organization, or a hate or whatever the interrogator represents. Think of a street thug that doesn't want to sell his buddies out and is trying to "stick it to the man." He'll resist cops just because they represent an authority figure. Military Interrogators are just looking for information about the enemie's capabilities and intentions while a police interrogator will be trying to get a subject to admit to commiting a crime. As of late, in Afghanistan, there is a push to hold criminals legally responsible and we are starting to do the CSI thing and look for arrests on top of the tactical intelligence, but really the sources are of more value when they can be turned and pushed back out the gate to gather more information for us.

      To answer your question, if an interrogation goes to far, the interrogator will be held accountable under military and civil law and pontentially tried as a war criminal for violations of the CGeneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I personally think that it would be very hard for anyone to walk "the thin grey line". There would be too much pressure to get the information needed along with a healthy amount of defiance from the person being interrogated. So, what happens if the person's conscience goes UA and the interrogation goes too far? Does the information that was gathered by the person still hold water even though it may have been obtained in a not so legal manner?


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