From the detective coaxing a confession out of a suspect, to the counterterror operative racing to find a ticking bomb, interrogation has always been a key part of mystery and suspense fiction. Today, Killer Nashville welcomes a special guest: master interrogator Robin Fox, hero of Mind Virus, a 2013 Claymore finalist. Thank you for joining us, Captain Fox.
Just “Robin,” please. I’m not in the service anymore, and that’s a time in my life I don’t care to be reminded of.
Sorry. But you were a military interrogator, and a Bronze Star winner at that. That’s quite an unusual career move for a peace-loving academic like you.
I joined the service just because it was expected in my family, and my father wouldn’t have paid for my education if I’d refused. I didn’t expect to see much action, but as soon as I was commissioned, 9/11 happened. I spoke some Arabic – I was a Foreign Service brat, and had picked up a smattering of several languages – so they sent me to the “Schoolhouse,” the interrogator training facility at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. After that, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq…you name it, I’ve been there. If you can’t name it because it’s top secret, I’ve probably been there too.
What would you say is the most important part of interrogation?
Building a relationship with the subject. The most important questions in any interrogation are the ones you don’t ask aloud. Who is this person? What does he want most? What does he fear most? Once you know the answers to these questions, you have the key that opens any door.
You’ve often said that “interrogation is theater.” Could you elaborate?
A good interrogator is as skilled as a good actor at improvising himself into a role. If you learn that the subject had a traumatic experience in his past, for example, you can create a character for yourself that had a similar experience and can empathize.
That all sounds like more than Jack Bauer would have time for.
Don’t get me started on Jack Bauer. Yes, it takes time, and no, it doesn’t play as well on TV, but it works. If you scare a subject into cooperating, he’ll only cooperate as long as you can keep him scared. But if you can earn his trust, he’s yours forever.
Getting confessions isn’t even the point. Military interrogation is a different game than police interrogation. You aren’t trying to solve a past crime, you’re trying to plan your future strategy. The question isn’t “Whodunnit?” but “What are they going to do next?”
And what strategies do you use to find that out?
The Army has its playbook of approaches with names like Fear Up, Fear Down, Pride and Ego Up, Pride and Ego Down…One example is Establish Your Identity. If the subject refuses to talk about one incident, you accuse him of involvement in another, much worse one. He’ll usually cop to the lesser charge.
That assumes the subject still has some instinct for self-preservation. Would it work on terrorists who’d happily blow themselves to oblivion as long as they could take some of us with them?
That doesn’t describe everyone who joins a terrorist group. Some join out of fear; they see a choice between being on this group’s member list or their hit list. Some were deceived by the group’s leader, and some join because of plain old romantic love. It’s never as simple as “We love freedom and they hate freedom.”
But you must get some who are die-hard ideologues.
Then you let them talk about ideology. Let them rant all they want. When they pause for breath, you can interject something like, “Oh, I read something similar in so-and-so; did you get some inspiration from him?” All human beings have a basic need to be listened to, understood, taken seriously. If you provide that for the subject, you instill a subconscious sense of indebtedness. You lower his psychological defenses, so when his lecture is over, he’s much more likely to tell you what you need to know.
Can you recommend some books for people who’d like to learn more?
There are many books by former military interrogators out there. Here are some of the ones that were most useful:
Alexander, Matthew: How to Break a Terrorist (2008).
Lagouranis, Tony: Fear Up Harsh (2007).
Mackey, Chris: The Interrogator’s War (2005).
Navarro, Joe: Interviewing Terrorists (2011), and many other books about interrogation techniques.
Saar, Erik: Inside the Wire (2005).
Thank you very much, Professor Fox. I hope everyone enjoys reading about your adventures in Mind Virus!
Robin Fox, professor of comparative religions at George Washington University, is a fictional character. Charles Kowalski, whose debut thriller Mind Virus won the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Award (Action/Thriller) and was a finalist for the Claymore Award, the Clive Cussler Grandmaster Award, and the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Literary Award, is real as far as he knows. Both of them have spent a large part of their lives abroad and studied several languages; Charles now divides his time between Japan and Downeast Maine.
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