Forced confession – a 2-page story of an analyst’s dilema

Flash fiction

The forced confession was in stilted Arabic with words that the suspect never used, and the recording from the interview had been replaced by a transcript.

Torture! The word was in Akila’s mind, plus the reputation of the intelligence agency and the country who had conducted the “interview”. She looked up at the intelligence officer who had shown her the transcript. He seemed unconcerned by the moral questions. “Should we be treating this as valid intelligence research?” she asked.

Forced confession / torture (simulated)
Forced confession / torture (Simulated)

“Of course we use it. The point it makes is stunning. It shifts our understanding of that whole organisation.” He nodded in agreement with himself. “If you can’t see that, you’re not the smart intelligence analyst you claim. It’s time someone exposed you.”

Akila heard the threat. She kept her face neutral. “We need context to assess this,” she said. “What were his conditions of detainment? His health? And we need video recordings for this and the previous interviews.”

“No, we don’t. I saw him. I talked to him alone. That’s enough.”

Akila said nothing. It was inevitable that the Service’s intelligence officers would encounter torture, but to use the “output” from torture was against strict rules. It would be spotted by one of the eagle-eyed readers among the politicians and civil servants, her analysis report would be withdrawn, and she’d be blamed for damaging the Service’s reputation. She wondered if the intelligence officer had been a witness to the forced confession. The implications of that could be damaging to his career.

“I want a full analysis report,” he persisted. “Don’t give me tunnel vision, repeating the old theories you analysts keep trotting out. And don’t bias it to match your so-called principles.”

“I never bias my work.” There was pride in her voice.

Akila considered the man’s seniority. She’d been ordered to help him. “A ‘revised understanding’ will require research to find supporting evidence. I’ll need help from the research team.”

She took the case to her friend Karina. While Akila lived with theories and reports, Karina’s career as a research assessor was to collate facts, working with the curators of the intelligence databases, the experts running the artificial intelligence systems, and the collectors who shifted through the raw intelligence.

“Akila, if this is a forced confession, you must not use it.” There was no mention of the T word – Torture. The T word was taboo. The T word implied rules or laws had been broken, and heads would roll. “Report it upwards.”

“If I report it, I’ve made another enemy. My reputation will go down even further.”

“Confront him.”

“He’s the type who won’t take criticism from analysts – especially young female analysts.”

“If he tried misogyny on me, he’d learn the pain of some hard words.”

“I don’t do confrontation. It would imply I have a preference. That’s not professional for an analyst. However I do get to compare his theory with the null hypothesis: that nothing has changed and his theory is nonsense.”

A fortnight later, and the intelligence officer trapped Akila in a small meeting room. “When am I getting my analysis report?” he asked.

She stood on the opposite side of the table with her back to the frosted glass wall. “It’s progressing well,” she announced. “I’ve found evidence from other sources that build on the theory.”

“Excellent. I told you his testimony was important. Get me the draft.”

A forced confession is not a testimony, Akila figured. Aloud, she said: “I need more time for research.”

Another week, and his patience snapped: Time’s up! he wrote. You have one day, and then I complain to your head of department.

Akila submitted her report. It was not a draft to him, but a formal submission into the review and publication workflow. He was at her desk so quickly he could not have read it: “You were told to give me a draft.”

“My report corroborates your theory.”

“Hah! So you used the interview.” He almost laughed in her face at her capitulation – the high-minded analyst who had been tricked into using a forced confession.

“Sorry. I left out the confession because it’s providence could be questioned. The research teams found other evidence that was more trustworthy.”

More about forced confessions

There are different approaches to forced confession. None of them produce a compliant and unbiased subject who is willing to help. At best, the subject includes facts among the random statements, but they’re useless unless checked with other sources. At worst, it is merely sadistic self-indulgence for the perpetrators.

Democratic countries ban torture, not just because of the ethics but because the political fallout is far larger than the trivial benefits. The main use of torture is for oppressive regimes that need to terrify opponents.

Extreme brutality to enforce cooperation. Except it’s not cooperation, but self-interest to say anything that will bring relief.

Extreme disorientation, such as from prolonged lack of sleep, isolation, disrupted biorhythms, and contextual disorientation. In a law court, it could be difficult to prove that psychological disorientation was torture.

Drug-induced confessions. This varies from a contribution to extreme disorientation to inducing a state that may make a subject susceptible to suggestion. It is not a truth serum. A determined person can still lie.

For more about the ethics of using intelligence, see chapter 6 of Principled Spying, The Ethics of Secret Intelligence, by David Omand and Mark Phythian. Oxford  University Press, 2018.

For other stories of ethical dilemmas, see Judicial oversight – a 2-page story of illegal intercepts and The assassination – a 2-page story of an ethical dilemma.