Person pitted against person. Betray and go free. Stay loyal and be punished. [graphic by me.]
Examining the rhetoric of the interrogators.

Yesterday a post by American Lieutenant and “terrorist catcher” Chris Simmons, arguing that the “Prisoner’s Dillemma” technique for interrogation proved the “frailty of loyalty” in people, was freshly pressed. After reading his piece, some counterarguments came to mind. [Note that the following is not a criticism of the author – who is credited with saving the lives of “12 suicidal/despondent soldiers” while leading a high-stress Crisis Hotline –  but a laymen’s attempt to examine his stated logical conclusions about a controversial questioning technique.]

The man nicknamed “The Puppet Master” concluded that his “diabolical” techniques proved the frailty of loyalty among “terrorist suspects” in Iraq, and by logical extension, of people in general. However, there appear to be logical flaws to his conclusions, and I wonder whether the humanity of those orchestrating the interrogations is as much, or more in question than that of those being subjected to it. After all, the same interrogation techniques could be used by either side of any conflict against the other. So-called “terrorists” could easily employ the self-same methods against America’s finest soldiers, if they could get their hands on them. Once you remove the notion that those being interrogated are automatically the bad guys, you can look over at the interrogators themselves and scrutinize their actions as well.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Ah, but he who pulls the strings is so much more interesting and culpable than those he manipulates.

The author of the post is a high level interrogator, former paratrooper, and the whole nine-yards. This guy’s an expert with tons of experience and accolades. He posits himself as a bit of an American hero, and explained to his children that he did “bad things to bad people,” or rather, “didn’t do anything bad [but] simply brought justice to those who sought to harm others.” I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, I can’t help but wonder if a definition like “those who sought to harm others” doesn’t apply to everyone in a war situation or other lethal conflict, regardless of which side they are fighting for. One man’s villains are another’s heroes. The Hatfield’s only do bad things to the McCoys who seek to harm them, and vice versa. Neither is bad within their own paradigm, but the opponent automatically is. Nobody is meant to consider the humanity of the “common foe”. He is a monster, and anything done to him, no matter how dastardly, is morally correct and necessary.

The Hatfield clan in 1897.

How the “Prisoner’s Dillemma” works is to pit the prisoners against each other in a situation of extreme duress. Those who volunteer to cooperate will get lenient treatment and a quick release, while those who do not will be detained indefinitely (and the threat of torture is probable). Regardless of which side is considered the good or bad side, there’s no question of who has the upper hand in this situation. The interrogators have all the power, and the prisoners none. In the example the author gave, the prisoners were forced to wear “blacked-out goggles” when moved from their “individual cells” and taken to the “Black Room” in order to “increase stress and anxiety.” If they are isolated in cells, and forced to wear goggles, they must be helpless and completely at the mercy of their captors.

Suspected Taliban fighters wearing black-out goggles, Afhganistan. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

At this stage those in power are rewarding what they themselves believe is unethical or immoral behavior (selling out one’s peers), and punishing what they believe is noble behavior (refusing to sacrifice one’s peers). They have set up their own self-fulfilling prophecy, that says little or nothing about the prisoners. When people are forced to be disloyal, they will be disloyal. It may be merely adding insult to injury to smugly decry those subjected to the interrogation techniques as lacking moral fiber. In a situation where people are powerless, and their only hope for survival (or to not be subjected to torture) is to cooperate with their captors, sooner or later they will break. When it comes right down to it, while the prisoners in question may be loyal to their fellow prisoners or whatever cause they are fighting for, that doesn’t mean they are prepared to be imprisoned for years, for life, or tortured. The author talked about the “frailty of loyalty” among prisoners, but it’s really the frailty of mortal flesh, and the susceptibility of the mind and consciousness to the destruction of the body. And let’s face it, prisoners can be soldiers who are pawns in a game they may not entirely comprehend or support, and can’t be expected to endure endless confinement in the name of expanding some other man’s territory, or keeping a tyrant in power.

Which one is bad? The pawns aren’t really the problem. They’re just ordinary folk, and usually have a pretty tough lot.

Imagine a group of students are rounded up by some heinous dictatorship for protesting against the corruption of the regime and demanding democracy, and they are subjected to the “Prisonner’s Dillemma” interrogation technique. They may be steadfastly committed to their causes, and completely loyal to their peers, but that has nothing to do with how they will react to being pitted against other sentient beings in a perverse game in which some of them could be tortured or mutilated. Such interrogation wouldn’t test their beliefs, because a mathematician will say 2+2=3 in order to keep all his fingers. A far more revealing test of the student’s loyalty would be to offer them a high paying position within the regime, and see who takes the bait.

It’s one thing to offer bait and see who takes it. It’s something else entirely to cram it down their throats and then fault them for eating it.

But the real trick isn’t merely pitting the prisoners against each other. No, it is tricking them into thinking that their peers have already sold them out. This is the golden key. The prisoners are told to raise their hands if they are willing to cooperate. Because all the prisoners are blindfolded they don’t know who, or if anyone has volunteered. Those running the interrogation pretend that prisoners have volunteered by calling out, “Alright, we have one…now two..” The remaining prisoners will feel their peers have already abandoned them, and thus the question of loyalty is removed. Why should you be loyal and sacrifice yourself to your peers if you believe they have already betrayed you, one by one? Notice the author does not acknowledge that the last person standing IS loyal or courageous. There is no reward for nobility. The enemy cannot be moral, just or courageous. He can only be wrong or wrong.

Interrogation of the common enemy, who is always a monster. Call him a “Prawn” or a “Terrorist”. Still from the movie, “District 9” which investigates just these issues.

The “Prisoner’s Dillemma” is a perverse psychological experiment which uses absolute power, false impressions, and the threat of endless suffering to force people to sell out their peers. It could be used to pit friend against friend, family against family, lover against lover. Those who administer the technique would crumble under it’s power if the roles were merely reversed and they were the ones wearing the blindfolds. Because of the cruel and unethical nature of the methodology, which rewards betrayal and punishes self sacrifice, the onus is on those who are administering it to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that they themselves are NOT the “bad guys”.

release the hounds

We may imagine scenarios in which the interrogation techniques in question would be essential, such as the plot of any of a number of episodes of 24 –terrorist nuclear threats, biological threats, and presidential assassination attempts – but those far-flung fictional extremes might be used to justify using these same methods on “environmental terrorists” or peaceful protesters who only pose a threat to the entrenched hegemony of the already fabulously wealthy. Indeed, once you are labeled a “terrorist” – which has become a catch-all word to vilify anyone who challenges the status quo (criticize the big banks or get in the way of the oil pipelines being built, and you are a “terrorist”) – you may be eligible for interrogation techniques ostensibly designed for people who plant bombs.

Sure, I enjoyed this series as much as the next person, but I was skeptical of the politics behind it, in particular of the repeated uses of extreme interrogation techniques, which, if one didn’t resist the manipulation of one’s emotions, would render one an unwitting proponent of torture.

It may be possible that such methods could be used for good, necessarily and inevitably, but the likelihood that they could be used by the corrupt or vile against the innocent is much higher, because the instrument of barbarity is most likely to be wielded by the barbaric themselves. The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is merely a choice to be made by the powerless between two untenable options. The “Interrogator’s Dilemma” is more interesting. He still has the power to walk away from the game.

The author of the post who has used these interrogation techniques in Iraq concluded that they proved peoples’ loyalty is a frail thing.

The most striking and disturbing aspect of this questioning technique was how quickly self-interest shattered not just the existing cohesiveness of the detainee group, but even their individual values, beliefs, and identities. Blood-ties and Al-Qaeda service together meant little when pitted against our appeal. On every occasion, primal self-interest trumped loyalty and collective needs, not in days or weeks, but in just a few short hours.

I disagree with the conclusion. We don’t know if the suspects’ “values, beliefs and identities” were “shattered” or even altered. We don’t even know if they were already aware of the methods being used on them, in which case there would be no way to interpret their response: did a prisoner volunteer to cooperate out of cowardice or because he knew it was a ruse to begin with? This isn’t a controlled experiment because there’s the variable of the false impression that the prisoner’s peers have already betrayed him. If the suspects would sell each other out under less extenuating circumstances, than why the charade?

Psychologist Philip Zimbard’s “Stanford prison experiment, 1971” showed how people conform to social roles. A group of 24 students were assigned the role of guard or prisoner randomly. The experiment had to be abandoned after 6 days because the outcome was too distressing (the guards became sadistic and employed  psychological torture). Here we can see the danger these roles play even when the “guards” knew that the “prisoners” they abused were innocent.

This psychological/social experiment more clearly demonstrates that people will not maintain vows of loyalty when the bonds of trust appear to have already been severed. Given that the set-up is designed to trick the suspects, we only know that they chose the path that seemed more likely to lead to their their own survival, and that most people would apparently do the same thing. One could retain all of one’s loyalties, beliefs, values and core identity, but accept that under circumstances of absolute powerlessness, and extreme duress, sooner or later one will most likely crack (and if their mind didn’t their body would soon enough). Prisoners, after all, are people – be they “terrorists” or ‘liberators” – and among their own kind are probably just ordinary folk. Regular people are no more expected to be superheros impervious to anxiety and pain in extenuating circumstances than are street cars expected to remain airtight underwater. Expecting the “terrorist suspect” to sacrifice his life for his peers is a bit like expecting the witch to float.

The “Ducking Stool” from the Middle Ages. If the suspect drowned she was innocent, and if she floated guilty. With hind-site we now know that those standing in judgement were actually guilty of murder, and the “witch” falsely accused, and quite possibly innocent of any wrong doing. We can learn from this not to easily fall into labeling and demonizing others who are all too human and vulnerable.

Only those among us who are very certain that they would never crack under interrogation can gloat here. Further, how can we speak of destroying someone else’s morality, when the means of destroying it is itself immoral, coerced, and done by our own hand?

In short, an inhumane experiment can not prove that those who are subjected to it are inhuman.

[of course, I could be wrong, and the great thing about being wrong is that as soon as you admit you are wrong, you’ve learned, and you aren’t wrong anymore.]


And now for the poll:

4 replies on “The “Prisoners’ Dillemma” Vs. the “Interrogators’ Dilemma”.

  1. Notice that, in the original post, the author didn’t make any claim about the accuracy or utility of the information. If I were given a choice of saying something or being stuck in a deep hole of some literal or metaphorical sort, I’d certainly say something, even if I had little to say. My loyalty, if I had any, would be expressed in what I say. So, yeah, I’d talk, but if what I say is useless, so what?

    This doesn’t make me an expert, but I read a book about terrorism-associated interrogation (called The Interrogators, I think) where the author made a point that these kinds of negative or fear-based techniques worked faster in inducing some cooperation from detainees, but that, if cooperation dried up, alternate methods were ineffective. On the other hand, more positive rapport-based approaches were harder to do, but produced better responses in the long-term and left more room for flexibility.

    Nice job taking on something that too-easily could turn into one of those with-us-or-against-us moments that make us all feel icky!


    1. Thanks. This was a difficult issue for me to tackle, but I thought I’d give it a go. Right, I think I’ve come across some of the same findings about the unreliability of information garnered under serious duress or torture. If you gotta’ cough up something or else, and you have nothing to cough up, guess you just gotta’ make shit up. Glad you appreciated my attempts at being subtle or delicate about the more volatile politics.


  2. People who are the “interrogators” have to believe in what they are doing. They simply HAVE to, in order to do the things they are asked to do in the name of justice. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a soft-hearted woman but I’m wondering when we will hit the day where torture tactics are no longer part of the “necessary means” to an ironic justice.


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