October 27, 2015

Symposium Facilitates Exchange of Research on Lawful Interrogations

Event Sponsored by Government’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group

Director Comey at High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group Symposium

Director Comey addresses the audience at the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group’s fifth annual research symposium, held October 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

“The rule of law in the Constitution is our spine, it’s who we are, it’s part of our fiber ... and we want humane, effective, lawful encounters with every human being.”

Those words were spoken last week by FBI Director James Comey as he was discussing the efforts of the U.S. government’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) during the HIG’s fifth annual research symposium, held October 23 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Comey, who briefed symposium participants on the evolving terror threat, also said that the HIG’s work “is valuable beyond national security cases” and that the group’s research and training efforts benefit law enforcement interviewers as well.

The HIG, established in 2009, brings together personnel from the U.S. Intelligence Community to conduct interrogations that strengthen national security and that are consistent with the rule of law. But in addition to its operational role in eliciting accurate and actionable intelligence from high-value terrorism subjects, the HIG plays another vital role as well—serving as the government’s focal point for interrogation best practices, training, and scientific research. And during its yearly research symposium—coordinated by the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso—scientists from the U.S. and abroad who work with the HIG have the opportunity to share with policy makers and intelligence professionals ground-breaking research that can impact the effectiveness of interview and interrogation methods.

All HIG-sponsored research is unclassified—researchers who work with the HIG are free to publish their findings, and most do. At this year’s symposium, participants presented research on topics like the dynamic nature of interrogations, the challenges of interviewing through interpreters, the use of rapport rather than tough tactics, negotiations across cultures, subtle elicitation approaches, and priming disclosure and cooperation.

Background on the HIG: The director of the HIG is an FBI representative and is assisted by two deputies—one from the Department of Defense and the other from the Central Intelligence Agency. Full-time HIG members are augmented part-time by HIG-trained professionals from FBI field offices and other U.S. Intelligence Community agencies.

HIG responsibilities fall under three primary areas, all of which feed into one another:

  • Interrogations: The HIG deploys expert Mobile Interrogation Teams (MITs) to collect intelligence that will prevent terrorist attacks and protect national security. Since the HIG’s creation, MITs have been deployed within the U.S. and abroad. Deployment teams generally consist of a team leader, interrogators, analysts, subject matter experts, linguists, and other personnel as needed. HIG interrogators are chosen for—among other attributes—their extensive interviewing and interrogation experience and their willingness to adapt to evolving interrogation techniques based on the latest scientific research.
  • Research: The goal of the HIG’s research program is to study the effectiveness of interrogation approaches and techniques by identifying and validating existing techniques that work—and by developing new lawful techniques that may work even better. The HIG identifies research gaps in the interrogations field and commissions research products to fill in these gaps. To carry out the research, the HIG contracts with Ph.D.-level scientists from all over the world known for their expertise in interrogations and other related fields. Since its founding, the HIG has funded nearly 80 interrogation research projects, some of which have covered interviews with expert interrogations interrogators, social influence tactics, the impact of interpreters, the cognitive interview, the strategic use of evidence, and science-based methods of detecting deception. A side note: All HIG research is done in complete compliance with international laws and U.S. laws concerning the protection of human research subjects.
  • Training: The HIG works to develop and disseminate best practices for training purposes for its own interrogators and part-time personnel and for other U.S. Intelligence Community and law enforcement partners and allies abroad. Over the past year, HIG trainers—who are FBI-certified training instructors—have worked with more than 500 students from multiple agencies, including 90 foreign partner participants. And some of the HIG’s interrogation techniques have been added to the curricula of the Department of Defense’s human intelligence training facility in Arizona and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Georgia, among others. HIG interrogations are primarily terrorism-related, but the lawful interrogation techniques can also be used when questioning criminal suspects, which is why we share best practices with and conduct training sessions for select state and local law enforcement partners.

Has the HIG been effective? According to HIG Director Frazier Thompson, “Much of our operational work is necessarily classified, but I can tell you this—as a result of the HIG, plots to harm the U.S. and its allies have been disrupted, dangerous people have been put behind bars, and gaps in U.S. intelligence collection have been bridged.”

The Truth About the HIG

There are several misconceptions about the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) that we’d like to clear up. Here is the truth:

  • The HIG does NOT use torture. HIG personnel do not engage in any unlawful interrogation practices—they use authorized, lawful, non-coercive techniques based on the best science available that are designed to elicit voluntary statements and that do not involve the use of force, threats, or promises.
  • The HIG does NOT select its own intelligence targets. With U.S. intelligence requirements in mind, targets are nominated by a U.S. intelligence agency and must be approved by appropriate partner agency leadership.
  • The HIG is NOT the FBI. Even though the HIG is administratively housed within the FBI, it is a multi-agency organization whose principal function is intelligence gathering—not law enforcement—and it is subject to oversight through the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, and Congress. That being said, the actions of HIG teams are carefully documented and evidence preserved in the event of a criminal prosecution, and its members are prepared to testify in court if necessary.