Fear Up interrogation techniques

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Fear Up interrogation techniques include a number of undoubtedly coercive methods. If unpleasant, they still may be purely psychologically coercive and reasonably within the limits of the Geneva Conventions and Convention against Torture, but they also may go well beyond those constraints.

From the psychological standpoint, fear can be an effective motivator, but, to use it in interrogation, the interrogator must offer a direction that allows the subject to avoid the feared outcome. Otherise, fear alone can lead to denial, increased defensiveness, and an inability to think about the subject at all.[1]

Existing doctrine

In the intelligence context, a U.S. Army manual of 1987 described various levels of emotional fear effect, with explicit mention of Geneva Convention constraints. Targets for this approach are described as prisoners who are:"[2]

  • younger and more inexperienced
  • appear nervous or frightened
  • appear to be the silent, confident type.
  • with something to hide, such as the commission of a war crime, or having surrendered while still having ammunition in his weapon, or breaking his military oath

This document divides the approach into mild and harsh methods. It also cautions it is a "dead-end" technique, to be used after more persuasive and rapport-building approaches have failed, since it is difficult to decrease fear once established. In the mild form, the interrogator must be visibly confident, relying on personality rather than shouting or making violent gestures. Still, it is a "credible distortion of the truth". It may be a blackmail-based technique when the source has something to hide, something of which his own side would not approve. It may rely on coincidence, such as suggestions of "caught on the wrong side of the border before hostilities actually commenced (he was armed, he could be a terrorist), or a result of his actions (he surrendered contrary to his military oath and is now a traitor to his country, and his own forces will take care of the disciplinary action)."

The harsh doctrinal approach has the interrogator(s) act "in a heavy, overpowering manner with a loud and threatening voice. The interrogator may even feel the need to throw objects across the room to heighten the source's implanted feelings of fear. Great care must be taken when doing this so that any actions taken would not violate the Geneva Conventions. This technique is to convince the source that he does indeed have something to fear and that he has no option but to cooperate. A good interrogator will implant in the source's mind that the interrogator himself is not the object to be feared, but is a possible way out of the trap. The fear can be directed toward reprisals by international tribunals, the government of the host country, or the source's own forces."

Enhanced fear

Assuming the subject has prisoner of war status, the Fourth Geneva Convention's Article 13 gives prisoners protection against "acts of violence or intimidation..." Mackey described the thin line taught to conventional interrogators, saying that "Do you know how many of your own people were killed at the end of World War II when the German prisons were opened" was acceptable, but "If we send you back, you know they're going to kill you." As he put it, the standard instructor phrase at the Army Intelligence Center was "you can't put a dagger on the table."[3]

So, even in situations where there is an attempt to comply with the Geneva Conventions, there is a delicate line. In the KUBARK manual, the point is made that the fear of torture may exert more pressure than torture itself.[4] This was, however, directed at a situation in which the Geneva Conventions might not have applied. Biderman spoke of fear of the unknown as an especially effective technique in Communist Chinese efforts to coerce confessions.[5]

In more recent situations, culturally-specific stimuli induced extreme fear. One memorandum spoke of interrogation "using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress."[6]


  1. Davis D,O'Donohue W (2003), Chapter 36: The Road to Perdition: Extreme Influence Techniques in the Interrogation Room, in O'Donohue W, Levensky W, Handbook of Forensic Psychology, Academic Press, pp. 926-27
  2. , Appendix H: Approaches, Field Manual (FM) 34-52: Intelligence Interrogation, U.S. Army, 8 May 1987
  3. Chris Mackey & Greg Miller (2004), The Interrogators: inside the secret war against al Qaeda, Little, Brown & Co., ISBN 0-316-87112-5, p. 33
  4. Central Intelligence Agency (July 1963), KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122, p. 90
  5. Albert D. Biderman (1957 September), "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War", Bull N Y Acad Med. 33 (9): 616–625, p. 620
  6. Jerald Phifer (October 11, 2002), Memorandum for Commander, Joint Task Force 170: Request for Counter-Resistance Strategies, Joint Task Force 170, Department of Defense