How do you get important information out of a terrorist you have in custody? Maybe even to prevent more killings?

Trump thinks the US should waterboard them again.

The CIA had stopped this torture program and only used it three times in the past.

Now we learned something new.

The FBI is inspired by the approach of Hanns Scharff, a former investigator for Nazi Germany.


  • Nazi Interrogator Hanns Scharff chose kindness over violence

  • Through sharing stories and giving freedom to move around, extracting information was easier

  • He was successful in 480 of 500 cases

  • The FBI is considering using this technique, as violence and fear has not yielded the best results


In a world where extracting the right information is becoming increasingly difficult, the FBI has been looking for inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. This time, they looked to Nazi Germany.

What has triggered this unexpected inspiration?

In the present global security climate, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation has been grappling with the questions of how to question terrorists, and gain important information from them in order to have a watertight approach to security.

While the usual cliché for such police or detective interrogation of terrorists brings to mind the image of physical torture, violence and mental harassment, the FBI may well do quite the opposite. Interestingly, this is inspired by the almost forgotten Hanns Scharff, who worked as an effective investigator and interrogator for Nazi Germany. He was believed to be a great manipulator, and ironically did not use much force to convince his targets to share information.

Scharff’s unique interrogation approach could be described by the following:

  • Instead of fear and power, Hanns Scharff used the techniques of kindness, compassion, respect and empathy
  • Amongst other activities, he shared various stories with his detainees
  • He took them for long walks along the countryside
  • He also gave them alone time in his office and encouraged them to read Stars and Stripes, the US military newspaper
  • He even allowed a detained US pilot  to fly with a German fighter plane
  • He occasionally offered detainees cigarettes, which were quite a luxury back then
  • During all of this, he slyly pried crucial information from the detainees
  • Scharff interrogated over 500 US and allied pilots and managed to get information from all except 20, with this strategy
  • He claimed that use of fear and violence would scare the detainees and they would not share information, but his unique approach worked much more effectively

Scharff’s strategy came into the limelight since 2009, when US President Barack Obama established the FBI-led High-Value Interrogation Group. This was started to explore other effective means to interrogate terrorists, as the US government was sharply criticised for use of torture on alleged terrorists.

A psychology professor at Iowa State University, Christian Meissner explains, “Scharff happened upon some of the strategies that are really effective, and we are beginning to understand why they are effective and how effective they can be. He really hit on strategies and techniques that work, and we now know why they work. There is a bit of an irony, I know, that we are learning this from an interrogator for the Nazis.”




Is Scharff’s approach still relevant?

However, the question remains whether how effective Scharff’s approach is in the present-day scenario of terrorist interrogation.  If Scharff used the approach that he did with prisoners of war, it is a slightly different situation – as usually there is an unspoken humanitarian protocol that they should be treated with the basic respect they deserve for being a nation’s official military man. Additionally, as Scharff mostly dealt with German-captured American war pilots, it was a different power equation between them. Mostly, there was no strong religious or cultural allegiance – more of a nationalist or patriotic connect to the country that one was fighting for. Therefore, if Scharff wanted to manipulate a military man into giving out sensitive information, he was only dealing with the soldier’s ideals of patriotism, and being part of the German military support team himself – Scharff and the prisoner could discuss ideas as equals.

In the case of terrorists, it appears that they are often inspired by religious ideals, and share a very different dynamic with interrogating officers. They are convinced that they are performing a great spiritual service and will receive a great spiritual reward for defending their ideals through terrorism, and these terrorist activities are scattered across various groups and taken ahead by different leaders. Therefore, it is not as simple or useful for police officers today to interrogate terrorists as it might have been for Scharff with his military detainees.

However, Scharff’s strategy of mental manipulation could definitely provide a unique approach to terrorist interrogation, and it is crucial that the FBI stops using unwarranted force and violence on detainees.

Time will tell whether this approach actually works out well for the FBI.