...This field interrogation unit gleans tactical, real-time information that changes battle plans and, most importantly, saves the lives of soldiers in the field as well as civilians on the home front.
04 April '14..
Two suspicious figures stand on the beach, keffiyehs on their heads. A small group of soldiers is quick to approach them, shouting to them in Arabic. The arrest is executed perfectly, and the soldiers begin to interrogate the prisoners.
Tensions are high. Just 100 meters away, two other members of the terror cell that sought to infiltrate the area and plant a roadside bomb are hiding.
This was not something that appeared on the evening news. It was a drill organized as part of a challenging five-week course run by Intelligence Unit 504. The purpose of the exercise was to provide training for field interrogators.
"A field interrogator sees the ocean, the terrific weather, and in this setting he needs to glean information from one or two individuals," said the course commander, Lt. Col. S. "The interrogators know nothing in advance. They need to probe the person. Who is he? What is he doing there? How did he get there? Obviously, problems arise along the way, such when a person makes himself out to be someone he really isn't.
"The job of the interrogators is to investigate what happened on the ground, the planning stages which the terrorists went through, the series of events and how they unfolded, and all of the equipment used. Field interrogators need to understand whom they are up against. They need to understand that the two men apprehended were not acting alone. They need to find the other two cell members, and ultimately foil the imminent attack."
The existence of the field interrogation unit is being revealed to the press for the first time in this article. It is an extraordinary outfit within the Israel Defense Forces from a number of standpoints. First, field interrogator is the only job in the army that is unavailable to conscripts in regular service. The IDF looks for Arabic speakers in their 20s and 30s who served in various field units (most of them in combat capacities), and they take the course as part of their reserve duty.
Their guides in the course and all the interrogators currently on active duty -- in other words, all the members of the unit -- are reservists.
"A paratrooper in the conscripts will in all likelihood be a paratrooper in the reserves, and a pilot will remain a pilot," said regional commander Lt. Col. H. "On the other hand, there are no field interrogators in the conscripts, so they have no familiarity with the history of the unit."
As such, the field interrogator is one of the few intelligence operatives who works on the battalion level. It is the interrogator himself who provides the battalion commander in the field with up-to-date, prepared intelligence.
"You are measured by the amount of intelligence you brought and your ability to alter the battalion's situation in the field," S. said. "And you bring vital information that often saves lives. If, for example, during an interrogation you obtained information that there are five land mines in the area, and thanks to this information the battalion moves toward the right and not the left, you did your job."
The nature of the unit and its essential function are different from those of any other better-known outfits in the IDF.
"There's no other course in the army taken by a reservist for five consecutive weeks to undergo training in field conditions and which requires him to disengage from his normal life," H. said, adding that some of the course cadets became parents during their training.
It was quite remarkable to see two reservists in uniform, 78-year-old Lt. Col. Y., and 61-year-old Lt. Col. G, two veteran interrogators who first joined the unit in the 1970s and 80s and who still take part in its operations.
"In this job, age is not a disadvantage, but a huge advantage," Y. said. "Here, you feel relevant, even when you are advanced in years. With infantrymen, time has its effect, and you grow weaker as the years go by. On the other hand, the ability to investigate and to question someone in fluent Arabic only get better with time."
That is how one finds themselves in the field with 20 Arabic speakers, who love Arab culture and speak among themselves in Arabic, with jokes only they understand and idiosyncrasies taken from Arab culture (such as the way in which they are insulted if you refuse to drink coffee with them).
The age gap between the older reservists and the younger ones causes no friction.
"We are having a hard time keeping them separate," one of the course instructors, Sgt. Maj. Ben, 27, said. "There's a special, familial atmosphere in the unit."
'Nothing like being in the field'
"Prospective cadets need to undergo psychological exams that are almost identical to those administered to would-be pilots," H. said proudly.
To become a field interrogator, one needs to possess a number of traits beyond knowledge of Arabic. One is physical fitness. In addition, the army prefers that cadets be officers. Then there is the psychological screening process that tests the candidates on their ability to withstand pressure. One scenario envisions a unit in the field under incessant fire, while the battalion commander wants to know the source of the shooting.
"The field interrogator needs to do two contradictory things," said S. "On the one hand, he needs to disengage from his surroundings and focus on the investigation, and on the other, he needs to be in constant communication with the battalion commander and the battle as its unfolding and to understand what he needs to ask and how much time he has."
The examinations also test individual skills, interpersonal communications, reading of body language and facial expressions, teamwork, and other abilities. The capacity to improvise, express oneself, and display creativity are very important to those for whom the tongue and the brain are their main weapons. Fourteen cadets came through the last course out of a field of 60 candidates. Not all of them will complete the course.
Capt. A., 27, a cadet, served in a combat unit as a conscript. His job was an officer in charge of gathering intelligence. He learned Arabic at university as well as taking private lessons, reading books on his own, and listening to songs.
"I was always fascinated to learn Arabic, given that we live in a country in which one-fifth of the population are Arabs," he said, acknowledging that he had no idea the course was even offered until Unit 504 came calling.
"This course came to my by surprise," he said. "The work in this unit is very interesting on both a personal level as well as on a cognitive level for an individual who is alone in the field. This job is a one-man show, and it will be whatever one makes of it. If you think outside the box and think ahead, you could save the lives of combat troops in the field as well as learn valuable lessons for the future."
A. considers himself to be a communicative individual who likes to interact with people.
"Israelis see Arabs in the street and often feel threatened simply because they don't understand the language," he said. "Perhaps they're talking about their favorite flavor of ice cream, while people around them think they're talking about planting a bomb on a bus. [The language barrier] is a foolish obstacle, because at the end of the day we are talking about people, and the language is a means to communicate."
"How do you know you've done a good job with the subject you've interrogated?" I ask.
"The person in front of you needs to understand that he has no chance of beating around the bush," he said. "The person needs to realize that he has to tell the truth. How do you do this? It's an art. The ability to relate to others is very developed here, and their ability to read people and situations is good. In any event, there is no reason for a good interrogator to reach a situation where he needs to use violence. That's one of the things that happens to a poor interrogator."
Sgt. Maj. S. was a paratrooper in the conscripts who took an interrogators course that enriched his ability to speak Arabic. He also absorbed some Arabic at home, as his father was of Syrian origin. He explained the difference between an interrogator and a field interrogator.
"In the interrogators course, you learn Arabic in order to make the initial introduction, and that's it," he said. "In the field interrogators course, we go much deeper, down to the little details. We need to understand the intelligence picture and to analyze it to aid the forces in the field."
The field interrogators are required to have a deeper, richer knowledge of what is going on. They need to identify the terrain in which they find themselves. They need to be familiar with the environment and to know from the landscape of the neighborhoods, the shapes of the mosques, and the local dialect whether the residents are Sunnis, Shiites, or Christians. This is the only way that they can piece together an overall, comprehensive situational assessment.
"My contribution here in this intelligence job can be much more valuable than being a paratrooper, which I was during my regular service," said S. "My goal is for [the army] to have enough trust in me."
When I question how an interrogator can figure out if a suspect is telling the truth or lying, A. said: "A good interrogator is a skeptical interrogator. That is what we are taught in the course. But you can't work in this profession if you are sure that people are lying to you all the time. You need to know how to go more in-depth and to understand where the suspect is more honest and where he is less honest, and why he has a wish to hide a certain thing."
What distinguishes Unit 504 from other intelligence outfits is that all its soldiers are combat troops.
"There's no substitute for a soldier on the ground," said A. "As an interrogator who was once a combat soldier, you can understand the whole picture from the perspective of the combat soldier. You know what the company commander in the field wants to hear from you, what is important to him this minute."
Unit commanders like to emphasize that "there is no substitute for human intelligence," which encompasses agents on the ground and investigations in the field.
"I'll give you an example," said. "Let's assume that you are talking to two locals in Gaza who sell vegetables in the market. They could tell you, 'You should know, Hamas won't let you in this neighborhood.' For the battalion commander, this piece of information is invaluable, and you can't get that kind of information in any other fashion. This may be the oldest profession in the world, but there is no substitute for human intelligence."
Much experience, high quality
Y. has been in the unit for 39 years. He remembers how, 30 years ago, then-Military Intelligence chief Ehud Barak personally asked him to continue his contributions to the defense of the country and remain in the reserves. Barak wanted him to participate in operations as well as in the instruction and teaching of others.
"You need to understand that those who get to this unit are people with a great sense of awareness, love of the homeland, a great deal of ideology, and the knowledge that what they are doing is very important," he said. "I know of reservist units that do nothing."
Like his comrades in the unit, Y. is called to reserve duty at least 10 times a year. Each stint lasts three or four days.
H. says times have changed.
"The nature of emergencies has changed dramatically compared to the 1970s and 80s," he said. "During the time when we were on active duty, every week there was something happening. It was non-stop operations. A lot of terror cells were uncovered. There were terrorist attacks carried out between wars, and we were called into action in the middle of the night. Today, the situation is much more tranquil."
These two senior citizens have countless stories to impart on the students. Y. managed to make a connection with a Syrian helicopter pilot who fell into Israeli captivity 30 years ago because he accorded him the respect that was appropriate for a high-quality, educated individual.
H. recalls an instance in which he used emotional manipulation on a prisoner of war captured during the First Lebanon War by allowing him to keep a picture of his infant daughter.
"He began to cry and to provide quality information about the alignment of Syrian commando forces," he said. "I can personally attest to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the information that I obtained was not obtained through violence, but through persuasion, sometimes combined with psychological pressure."
While they still enjoy doing reserve duty at their advanced age as volunteers, one thing that angers and frustrates them, as well as the other veterans of the unit, is the younger generations' growing distance from Arabic language studies.
"If there is ever a minister who needs to settle scores with Israeli governments, he or she will be very angry over the underestimation of the importance of learning the Arabic language in schools," Y. said. "Students learn German, French, Italian, but Arabic, of all languages, isn't taught, even though we are in an ocean that is the Arab world. It's absurd. What a terrible case of shortsightedness."
"Thirty, forty years ago, most of the combat troops in the unit were Jews from Middle Eastern countries whose mother tongue was Arabic," said H. "Today, there are very few people who absorb Arabic at home. It's a problem, because it's a language, a culture, a way of thinking that is greatly nuanced and very difficult to teach."
As I'm about to leave after the completion of the drill, the course commander, S., feels the urge to show me something.
"Listen, I know that because of the nature of our job we come out looking badly, but it's always important to remember that there are more bad guys on the other side, and that's why we're here," he said.
Indeed, this is not a job for the faint of heart or for gentle types. In this case, however, the ends justify the means. The tactical, real-time information that a field interrogator gleans from a prisoner could change an entire battle plan.
Most importantly, it could save the lives of soldiers in the field as well as civilians on the home front.