Isralert.com source: New Scientist.com
Michael Koubi worked for Shin Bet, Israel's security service, for 21 years and was its chief interrogator from 1987 to 1993. He interrogated hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including renowned militants such as Sheikh Yassin, the former leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli attack this year. He claims that intelligence gained in interrogation has been crucial to protecting Israel from terrorism. He tells Michael Bond that, given enough time, he could make almost anyone talk
What cut you out to become an interrogator?
It was in my character. It was natural for me. Also I spoke Arabic very well.
What was it about your character?
Being an interrogator is 70 per cent character, 30 per cent learned. You have to know how to use intonation when you speak to a prisoner. You have to let him feel you are the boss, always. Not many interrogators can do that, because they don't have the self-assurance. I was born with that. You have to know instinctively the exact time when to shout, when to speak loudly, when to speak quietly, or when not to speak at all and just sit and look at him - for hours if necessary. These things are instinctive.
How good are you at Arabic and why is that important? At school I learned Arabic better than other students, even the small nuances. I spoke it with my grandmother, with my parents. I can speak Arabic better than most Arabs. I learned the Egyptian, Lebanese and Jordanian dialects as well as Palestinian. This is very important because many Palestinians have worked all over the Arab world and they might speak, say, Egyptian Arabic better than they speak Palestinian. So when I'm interrogating someone who lived in Egypt they'll think I was actually there. They'll think I know everything about their world. Language is the key.
How does that help you in interrogation?
It's about making them think they cannot hide anything from you. If they live in a certain neighbourhood in Cairo, I will learn everything about that neighbourhood. I will know it like the back of my hand. I will learn the details, the houses, even the trees, everything about it. I will give the prisoner the feeling that I followed him there.You have to learn everything about him and his background. You have to know about his family, his wife, his children, his friends, his neighbourhood, his city. You have to be better than him, wiser than him. If I interrogate Sheikh Yassin, I have to know about the Koran. If I interrogate a maths teacher, I have to know maths. If you feel your detainee is wiser than you and you cannot stand head to head then you must change interrogators. That has never happened with me.
How do people behave when they are interrogated for the first time?
Every detainee behaves differently. It depends whether he's from the city or the village, or a Bedouin from the desert. It depends whether he's educated or not. Prison is unimaginably different to normal life. People behave in unexpected ways. People who talk tough in public often submit in interrogation.I once interrogated a Bedouin who said nothing at all for a few days. He was a very tough man. During one session I was playing with a stick, and this idea came to me: I said to him, do you realise there's a snake hidden in the stick? And suddenly he became very afraid. He said he'd tell me anything. This man was used to dealing with snakes in the open, but in a cell it was a different matter.
What's the first thing you do when faced with a new detainee?
It depends on the person. I have a thousand different systems for a thousand detainees. I always have to start alone in the room with him. Sometimes, to make a show, I get other, cooperative detainees to shout outside the door, and when he hears them yelling he gets fearful. Many detainees are young, between 18 and 24. It's their first time in jail and being interrogated, and most of them are likely to do what I tell them. Of course they won't talk about everything at the beginning. Sometimes I'll come in and give him a slap - but only with permission from higher authority.
What do you do when faced with someone who won't talk?
That is my speciality. I know how to do that. It has happened a lot.
How do you do it?
I have many systems. But I do it without using any kind of physical pressure.
Can you tell me about these systems?
No, I cannot.
Can you give me an example of when you've used them?
Once I interrogated a Palestinian man who belonged to Hamas and who I believed knew about the murder of two Israeli soldiers. I had interrogated him once before, when he had said nothing. This time he behaved differently. I looked in his eyes, at his hands, his legs, and he was reacting differently. I assembled my other interrogators, more than 20, in the room, and told them to remain silent. I told them, I am going to show you how to interrogate someone. Of course he was scared with 20 interrogators there. Then I did a few actions, without physical pressure. I showed him how I knew that he was involved. Suddenly he asked for a cigarette. When a Hamas terrorist asks for a cigarette during interrogation, you know he is going to admit something. I gave him one immediately, before he changed his mind. He asked for another. He smoked 10. Then he said, look I'm going to tell you things you don't know. He told me about all the leaders of Hamas, and about hundreds of others who were involved in Hamas that we didn't know about. He opened the way for us to get at Sheikh Yassin and other Hamas leaders who have been killed by our forces.
How physical are you allowed to get during interrogations, with permission?
Very low levels. It could be two slaps in one interrogation, or to shake him, but not very strongly, or to put a cover on his head to scare him. We have never insulted a person's religion or humiliated them. There is no torture in the security services.
What do you make of the torture and abuse that took place in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?
I don't want to judge the Americans. In Gaza we have one security person for every 1000 people. In Iraq they have one for every 100,000. They have no information or intelligence on their detainees. Information is the beginning of interrogation, and if there is none, if there is no language between you and the detainee, sometimes you will use more power. That I presume is what happened in Abu Ghraib.
Have those techniques ever been used in Israel?
Sometimes it has happened, but very seldom, and in these cases the interrogators were thrown out of the organisation. I have no need for those methods. I use only psychology, head to head.
But there have been many accusations.
I know. But these accusations come from detainees who heard screams and shouts coming from neighbouring cells and believed it was really happening, when it was just theatre. The yelling was from other detainees who were cooperating with us.
Did you ever have a detainee you couldn't break?
It has happened, but very seldom. I could count them on one hand.
Why were they so difficult?
They were very primitive people, not literate and not well educated.
Why does that make it harder?
Because I cannot use some of my systems. For example, I cannot show him written papers because he does not know how to read or write. They behave differently. I cannot speak about it. I cannot teach you all my tricks.
Tell me about Sheikh Yassin. How did you interrogate him?
I interrogated him twice, in 1984 and 1989. At the beginning he was totally silent. He didn't answer any questions. Then I said to him, I know you are a religious man, let's speak about religious knowledge. Now, to prepare for this interrogation I had learned the Koran almost by heart. I said to him, let's have a competition. I'll ask you a question about the Koran, and if I win I can ask you another about any subject and you have to answer. He was sure he would know it better than me. But I started asking complicated questions, and he didn't know the answers. When you are in prison, you forget things. For example, I asked him to tell me the name of the only sura out of the 114 in the Koran that did not contain the letter mim. He didn't know. I asked him how many verses there were in the Baqarah sura, the longest in the Koran. He had forgotten. So I won, and I sat with him for hundreds of hours while he talked about the ideology of Hamas. He even told other detainees to cooperate with me, because he respected me. If he could he would have killed me, but he respected me.
How would you interrogate someone like Saddam Hussein?
The Americans asked me about him. I said I couldn't help them. I don't want to say I can break him, but I'm sure I can. I'm sure I can achieve better results with Saddam than the Americans have, because of my experience.
How would you do it?
He was a leader, he has a lot of experience. He was an interrogator himself, and he killed hundreds of people himself, so it would be very difficult to interrogate him. But there is a way. I have heard rumours that he hasn't said anything.
Did you ever feel sympathy for the people you interrogated because of what you put them through?
Sometimes you can be sitting before someone who is 24 years old and he looks like a nice man. Then he admits to you what he's done and you can change 180 degrees in what you feel about him. It has happened a lot. Sometimes when I'm interrogating someone I feel that I could kill him because of what he's done. But if you want to achieve a result you have to keep your cool.The point is we are acting against terrorists. If I thought someone was innocent or knew nothing I would release them immediately.
Interrogation can leave people traumatised for years. Can you always justify it?
You can be sure that we never use physical or psychological methods that damage prisoners.
Do you think you could be broken if you were interrogated?
No. I would use the same methods I use when interrogating someone, only the opposite. I would give nothing away. Nothing.
Don't you have any weaknesses?
None. None in interrogation.