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A Conundrum: The Confessions

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

You would confess to a crime you didn’t commit. You would also implicate others in that same crime.

Don’t believe me? Then imagine this: You’re taken into a small room. Confined for hours. A ruthless interrogator badgers you until you confess to something. Anything. He threatens you with your life, unless you confess, unless you implicate your friends. So you do it.

Still sounds impossible doesn’t it? Go listen to the FRONTLINE episode, “The Confessions” then. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

(Or read this summary: In short, four men--Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr. and Eric C. Wilson--were convicted by the state of Virginia for the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997. Despite a dearth of physical evidence, the investigators began interrogating several men. Detective Glenn Ford--according to the four men--coerced them into confessions after intense, nine to twelve hour long interrogations. Eventually, another man, unconnected to the Norfolk Four, Omar Ballard, was convicted of the murder. He claims to have committed the murder by himself, and the rest of the Norfolk Four were later released from prison, though some haven’t been exonerated of all the charges. This is a complicated story a few paragraphs cannot do justice; I highly recommend the FRONTLINE episode.)

You’re probably wondering why, since this is “intelligence is evidence” month here at On Violence, I have just made you listen to a case about a miscarriage of American justice. As I wade into the dark side of intelligence/evidence gone bad, I need to set the scene. I need to prepare you emotionally to understand the consequences of intelligence/evidence gone awry.

(Our readers might be thinking to themselves, “Yeah, but I’m not a weak-willed person like the Norfolk Four.” Maybe. Maybe not. But bad intelligence is still bad intelligence, and justice not served is still justice not served.)

Attempting to capture the downsides of an “intelligence”-based approach to terrorism just doesn’t connect emotionally to most Americans. We are at war; injustices seem to be a natural part of war. Combined with a natural dose of cultural blindness and a dollop of nationalist indignation, most Americans don’t morally connect with travesties of justice abroad.

We can’t kid ourselves either; in the war on terror, travesties of justice happen. As often as we get intelligence right--Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda terrorists with the CIA drone program, and Khalid Sheik Muhammed at Guantanamo--we also get it wrong--the nine and half years it took to find Osama bin Laden’s “cave”, the civilian casualties with drone strikes, and three quarters of the Guantanamo population.

As these examples show, intelligence failures occur when law enforcement pursues their suspects with a single-mindedness that blinds them to the possibility they might be wrong. In the example from “The Confessions”, detectives coerced confessions from their suspects using techniques I know our forces use in Iraq and Afghanistan during interrogations.

While it seems inconceivable that men would confess to crimes they did not commit, the FRONTLINE article makes an extremely convincing case that it can happen. The story of the Norfolk Four is a case of over-zealous police work, plain and simple. Detective Glenn Ford--later convicted for extorting defendants--pursued confessions no matter how ridiculous or forced. One man initially claimed it was two man job, then a three man job, then a four man job, all the way up to seven men. Yet the juries never heard the entire twelve hour long interrogation, only the simple confession at the end--a confession rehearsed and practiced for two hours before recording.

Most relevant for our intelligence analysts in both the terrorism business and the insurgency business is that witnesses will implicate others under pressure. In the Guantanamo files, a handful of inmates made up the bulk of the allegations against the others. Downrange, detained insurgents, or suspected insurgents, are not protected by Miranda rights or the right to an attorney. It is war, after all. The Wikileaked Iraq War documents even allege that some Iraqi units engage in torture. If we know that coerced confessions in America, with all our protections, can be so wrong, imagine how wrong detainee reports in Iraq or Afghanistan could be.

On Wednesday, I will explain another example of American justice not served.

three comments

That’s the problem with waterboarding/torture/coercive methods in general: they get the person to say what you want them to say. And a person will say anything to ge tit to stop.

The best way is to isolate a person, and give them access to only one human being. The need/desire for human connection will force that person to start talking. Just like we did with Saddam.


To go with that, the resource page at the bottom of the frontline article has a ton of great academic papers on false confessions, very enlightening.


I think the comment: “Innocence is no longer its own defense,” is very telling. Rather than innocent until proven guilty. The case in the Frontline episode not only highlights lazy police work, but a lack of desire for true justice.