Why They Crack

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The U.S. government maintains that it has not used physical torture in its interrogation of alleged 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. So why would the al-Qaeda operative give up his colleague Iyman Faris to the feds? Because, experts say, eventually everybody cracks. The only variables are how long someone holds out and what pushes him over.

Inflicting bodily harm can actually be a poor method of extracting information. A detainee is likely to be so eager to end his pain he will confess to anything, even untruths, notes Rick Smith, a retired 25-year veteran of the FBI.

The most efficient technique is to break down a detainee's defenses, Smith says, then build up his trust. The first step is achieved through a combination of physical discomfort and psychological disorientation. A captive might be subjected to extreme heat or cold, deprived of light or dark, made to squat in painful positions, questioned and fed at irregular intervals, kept awake for hours on end. Most important is confinement in isolation, divorced from all that is familiar. "Human beings want to control their environment," says Ilan Kutz, an Israeli psychiatrist who has treated former captives. "If you can't control it, you lose the coordinates of the self." This, of course, is the plan. It sets the stage for a good cop — bad cop strategy in which the captive comes to depend on the supposed ally as the sole means of comfort and is thus likely to offer information to please him.

Loners, who are used to having few emotional connections, take longer to crack; so do those with deep beliefs, who can find nobility in suffering. Whatever the background of a detainee, as soon as he capitulates, he is likely to tell all. Says Kutz: "The interrogators can say, 'You're ruined to everyone on the outside. You might as well tell everything and let us help you.'"