Do Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Lead to False Confessions?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are enhanced interrogation techniques? On what kinds of subjects are they used? Are they effective?

Enhanced interrogation techniques are techniques including walling, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. They’re often used in the fight against terrorism.

Learn why enhanced interrogation techniques may be counterproductive, leading to misleading or false confessions.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in 2003

In March 2003, CIA interrogators James Mitchell and Bruce Jesson were brought into a CIA black site to deal with a high-value, highly difficult prisoner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (referred to here as KSM). KSM was a senior official in the terrorist group Al Qaeda and was expected to have information regarding upcoming terrorist attacks on the United States. KSM had proven to be a very difficult prisoner—two CIA interrogators had tried and failed to extract information from him. So Mitchell and Jesson were called into question KSM because of their expertise in “high stakes” interrogation practices known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” 

The CIA asked Mitchell and Jesson, both trained in the SERE program, to define the most definitively effective methods of enhanced interrogation. Mitchell and Jesson listed: 

  • Walling: The interrogator bangs the prisoner’s head against a special wall to create a loud noise and a sense of total confusion. 
  • Sleep deprivation: Prisoners were made to stand for hours or even days. 
  • Waterboarding: The prisoner is placed on a gurney at a 45-degree angle, with his head below his feet and a cloth covering his face. The interrogator pours water into the prisoner’s mouth at intervals up to ten seconds, to create the effect of drowning. Waterboarding was the last resort in an enhanced interrogation. Their mission was to get the prisoner to comply—to volunteer useful information. 

Using Enhanced Interrogation Techniques on KSM 

From their first meeting with KSM, Mitchell and Jesson knew that it would require every enhanced interrogation technique in their arsenal to get KSM to talk. They could tell he was hard-core because he wasn’t even affected by waterboarding—he was able to resist the one technique that was almost 100% effective on other prisoners. Beside that, KSM knew that he was in prison for the rest of his life so he didn’t have much to gain by complying. 

Mitchell and Jesson used enhanced interrogation techniques with KSM for three full weeks, using every technique they had. Then one day, KSM suddenly stopped resisting. On March 10, 2007, KSM issued a public confession after being in captivity for four years. 

Speaking through a “personal representative,” KSM admitted to single-handedly planning, organizing, and executing the 9/11 attacks on America. He also took (at least partial) responsibility for 31 other Al Qaeda operations and attempted operations. The disturbingly detailed confession was considered a big victory for Mitchell, Jesson, and the CIA. 

Results of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

KSM’s sudden and complete cooperation raises a question: Was KSM telling the truth? 

Do enhanced interrogation techniques work? Think of it this way:

  • KSM had been under traumatic stress for four years. The effects of stress on memory are well-studied. His memories could have suffered and his information could be unreliable.
  • Mitchell and Jesson had deprived KSM of sleep for days at a time, which could result in structural changes to the brain’s functions. 
  • KSM could have confessed as a means of getting Mitchell and Jesson to stop their harsh enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding and walling. 
  • KSM knew he would never be released. The only thing he had left was his legacy. He could have made his confession as a way to take credit for everything he possibly could. 

Despite all of these critical doubts about enhanced interrogation techniques, no one questioned the interrogation of KSM or challenged his confession. Why? Because with the threat of war on the horizon, it was essential to try and achieve peace with the enemy. 


Mitchell and Jesson were in a difficult position. They needed KSM to give them any information he had about any possible upcoming terrorist activity. But the more they interrogated KSM, the less trustworthy his information became. The quality of the interaction was diminished every time they attempted to get him to talk. This is the danger of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Do Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Lead to False Confessions?

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  • Why we're all terrible at understanding the intentions of other people
  • How these misunderstandings can lead to tragic, fatal consequences
  • The 2 things you can do to better understand complete strangers

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Talking to Strangers summary:

  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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