No German won as many intelligence coups as Hanns Scharff. Scharff worked for the Luftwaffe interrogating allied pilots and bomber crews, so successfully that the U.S. military taught his methods decades later.
Colonel Robin “tin eye” Stephens was a “bristling, xenophobic martinet” who ran a famously successful counterinelligence operation for MI5 out of a basement in London.
In the course of the war, some 500 enemy spies from 44 countries passed through Camp 020; most were interrogated, at some point, by Stephens; all but a tiny handful crumbled.
[…] Many became double agents, secretly working for the British and sending false information back to Germany.
Scharff and Stevens broke more prisoners than anyone else in the war on either side. Interestingly, neither one ever so much as raised their voice against a prisoner.
The terrifying commandant of Camp 020 refined psychological intimidation to an art form. Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. “
Scharff was opposed to physically abusing prisoners with the intent to obtain information. Taught on the job, Scharff instead relied upon the Luftwaffe’s approved list of techniques which mostly involved making the interrogator seem as if he is his prisoner’s greatest advocate while in captivity.
[…] After a prisoner’s fear had calmed, Scharff continued to act as a good friend to the prisoner, including sharing jokes, homemade food items, and occasionally alcoholic beverages. Scharff was fluent in English and knowledgeable about British customs and some American, which helped him to gain the trust and friendship of many of his prisoners.
Stephens cared not for morality but for results, and these were extraordinary. Once a prisoner in Camp 020 realised he was safe from physical violence, he tended to sing all the louder.
Some high profile prisoners were treated to outings to German airfields (one POW was allowed to take a German aircraft for a trial run), tea with German fighter aces, swimming pool excursions, and luncheons among other things. Prisoners were treated well medically at the nearby Hone Mark Hospital, and some POWs were occasionally taken from captivity to visit their comrades at this hospital for company’s sake as well as the better meals provided there. Scharff was best known for taking his prisoners on strolls through nearby woods, first having them swear an oath of honor that they would not attempt an escape during their walk. Scharff chose not to use these nature walks as a time to directly ask his prisoners obvious military-related questions, but instead relied on the POWs’ desire to speak to anyone outside of isolated captivity about informal, generalized topics. Prisoners often volunteered information the Luftwaffe had instructed Scharff to acquire, frequently without realizing they had done so.
Stephens did not eschew torture out of mercy. This was no squishy liberal: the eye was made of tin, and the rest of him out of tungsten. (Indeed, he was disappointed that only 16 spies were executed during the war.) His motives were strictly practical. “Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”
Confessions extracted by inflicting pain are most likely to be whatever the victim believes the torturer desires to hear, whatever is necessary to stop the agony.
So why do people torture? The answer is simple; when reality doesn’t suit your needs, torture lets you make your own reality. That, of course, was the goal all along.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
None of our prisoners would validate the idea that Iraq worked with al Qaeda. Then we tortured them, and they did. Amazing.
The salient point that I take home from today’s lesson is that interrogating prisoners takes patience and skill. Stephens and Schiff had the right stuff. Sadly for everyone, the GOP cult of impatient boobs needed a plan B.
Also see: the still anonymous interrogator who found abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Sherwood Moran, a Marine interrogator who ‘broke’ supposedly fanatical Japanese soldiers with patience and cultural awareness.