Why The FBI Doesn’t Record Interrogations

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

136px-US-FBI-ShadedSealAt a time when recording a conversation is as easy as whipping out a cellphone or iPod, the FBI policy on electronic recording of witness interviews is: “agents may not electronically record confessions or interviews, openly or surreptitiously, unless authorized by the SAC or his or her designee.” Instead FBI agents take notes and later type up a summary report called a form 302. The interview takes place with two FBI agents and the single interviewee. The FBI has eschewed the objective for the subjective.

This policy has proved problematic in numerous cases. District court judge Charles B. Kornmann in South Dakota lamented that he was forced to hear: “another all too familiar case in which the FBI agent testifies to one version of what was said and when it was said[,] and the defendant testifies to an opposite version or versions.”

Former U.S. attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton, was forced to resign when he tried unsuccessfully to order the FBI to record confessions. Charlton recalls that “We lost cases, we had to plead down cases, we had to drop cases just because of this policy.” In a beating case on a Navajo reservation, the defendant had been charged with assault with intent to commit murder for the attack on his live-in girlfriend. After the victim refused to cooperate, the form 302 was the critical piece of evidence. However, the form 302 didn’t even indicate if the defendant was intoxicated or if the interrogation was in English or Navajo.

In an internal memo, the FBI listed its arguments supporting its non-record policy:

First, the presence of recording equipment may interfere with and undermine the successful rapport-building interviewing technique which the FBI practices. Second, FBI agents have successfully testified to custodial defendants’ statements for generations with only occasional, and rarely successful, challenges.

Thomas P. Sullivan, et. al., have spoken with officers from over 600 police and sheriff departments and found “None of the officers who had experience with electronic recordings would voluntarily return to reliance on handwritten notes.”

The memo offers another FBI argument is:

[A]s all experienced investigators and prosecutors know, perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants. Initial resistance may be interpreted as involuntariness and misleading a defendant as to the quality of the evidence against him may appear to be unfair deceit.

What happened to the “successful rapport-building interviewing technique?” With the frequency of false confessions, one would think that the FBI valued ascertaining the actual guilty party and not just obtaining a confession that looks good to a jury. Playing to the jury is the FBI’s stated motivation. Juries tend to believe the two FBI agents, and the form 302, and this advantage would be lost if a recording was used.

The real reason the FBI doesn’t want to record interviews is Title 18 of the United States Code, section 1001, the so-called federal false statements law. Without recordings, the sole arbiter of what an interviewee says, is the FBI and its form 302. The threat of a charge if the interviewee is called to testify before a grand jury, or at trial, ensures testimony that is favorable to the prosecution. As noted by Harvey Silverglate:

Thus, the 302 reports are not there just to help the FBI report on interrogations; they are key tools for later manipulating witness testimony in a courtroom.

New York attorney Eric Dixon writes:

If the FBI wants to talk to you, they may be setting a trap for you where you walk into the interview totally innocent, and are totally vulnerable to being charged with a crime afterwards, no matter what you say.

H/T: Mano Singham, Brendan McCarthy (Times-Picayune), Steve Chapman, Eric Lipton and Jennifer Steinhauer (NY Times), Colin Ross.

47 thoughts on “Why The FBI Doesn’t Record Interrogations”

  1. So, i could be asked what time it it, the fbi guy’s watch be worng, and go to jail because a saw a terrorist try to bomb fountain square? I’ll represent myself, and follow fartindog’s advice

  2. I was interviewed by a deputy at one time. He used cop-talk instead of my words. I wouldn’t sign it unless he changed it to reflect my language and my meaning. Another officer taking my statement about a burglary of my home was having trouble, too. He was typing on his car computer, very slowly, lots of errors. I took over the typing. After all, it was my statement.

  3. Most of our national security agencies are modeled after the Cold War era “East German Stasi” model as depicted in the 2005 movie “The Lives of Others”. This is the closest model I’ve found to what we really have today, having said that the primary fault lies with the leadership of those agencies and Congress for creating this model. The question is how do we Americanize these agencies so they follow the constitutional rule of law? They seem to love their post 9/11 power grab.

  4. Wow, I’m shocked and disgusted that the FBI has a policy of no recorded interviews. My skepticism of police is beginning to bleed into cynicism.

  5. OS, We’re on the same page, I think. There are the small changes, and then there are more substantive changes that are legit. Many times as we read the statement the witness will give more detailed edifying information in a classic “Ahah” moment. As you know, getting a witness to remember events that occured 2, 3, 10 years ago is challenging for the interviewer and witness. I have interviewed witnesses on med malpratice cases involving child plaintiffs, many @ the birth. The damages aren’t realized for 6, 8..10 years so it’s extremely difficult getting witnesses to remember events in a delivery room, doc office, etc that occurred many years prior. Our misconnect is you are thinking solely of criminal cases and interrogations. Understandable, since that is what Nal wrote about and that’s your expertise. I am speaking of more generic documenting of witness statements. My criminal work ended in the early 80’s. However, the fundamentals are the same.

    Regarding attorneys and subpoenas. I know many attorneys in Wisconsin who love to fish, both on lakes and in court. Plaintiff attorneys in Wisconsin despise the fact that the videotape a PI takes for an attorney is work product and not subject to discovery[Ranpft v Lyons]. Wisconsin is one of the few, maybe the only state w/ these rules.

  6. Makes no sense unless you want to be able to have leeway to have the witness “saying” what you meant him to say.
    (I went to Phila small claims court. They do not have steno, only audio tapes. When I requested a copy of the proceedings I had to pay a transcriber who, when we spoke on the phone, said ‘these words were unintelligible. What were they supposed to be?” which still gave me wiggle room to change my words, had I wanted or needed it.

    OS. Yeras ago, I tried to have my mother declared financially incapacitated (people were stealing from her) my 2 sisters went with her to the court ordered psych exam. The sisters (who were against the request) stayed with her and convinced the psychiatrist that my mother, who had extensive psych hx including rounds of ect and repeated hospitalizations, was never, ever, in her life, diagnosed with psych disorder. I wish there had been a recording. (The judge said since no history he would not declare and people continued to steal from her as a result).

  7. D.S. — Stop whining. We have the best LEO money can buy. Would you prefer the system they have in China, Roosia, or Norte Koreeuh?

  8. Thanks David for bringing this issue to the limelight.

    As a former LEO, I look at this with both great surprise and contempt. This entire practice by the FBI is in direct opposition to the way an interview should be recorded, in the conventional sense with local agencies.

    First, I find it unbelievable the FBI, an agency that prides itself as being on the forefront of evidence and forensics mastery would do just the opposite in an interrogation which is lackluster, unexacting, and poorly operated from an evidenciary perspective. So much case law depends on exact words the defendant conveyed, especially with regard to waiver of miranda rights.

    Second, video/audio recording can reveal a great amount of information due to intonations and gestures that are not available from hand written notes on what happened. Additionally, as other commenters have observed, it covers the interviewer if the suspect makes an unfounded claim against them, such as they were beaten when they were not.

    The fact that the FBI can later manipulate the statements to me is the only actual reason for them persisting with this techique if it is their usual practice, though it should be at least recognized that some interviewees are such that if the interview is to be recorded they will object but would instead provide an interview that was not, and you have to get what you can in that case.

  9. If only we all could afford to have an attorney with us every time some leo decides to question us….

  10. Nick,
    I am not so sure about changing what was originally said. I do think the person should have the right to explain further or clarify, but don’t think the content of the original should be tampered with. That, IMHO, would constitute spoliation of evidence.

    Everyone drops a word or stumbles in ordinary speech, and the written word as well. Sometimes the error changes the whole meaning. I caught a mistake in a report earlier this week, thankfully before I mailed it. I left out the word “not” in a phrase, which changed the sentence 180 degrees in meaning.

    With regard to spoliation, some of us now use computers to type reports. I have heard of attorneys trying to subpoena all the edits and changes in the computer files as the expert wrote the report. I never heard of such a subpoena being successful. Most word processing programs do not preserve edits unless deliberately saved.

  11. “A well established practice among all LEO’s in interrogation is creatively lying to get admissions and confessions. This inherently makes the interview process one-sided, severely diminishing the civil rights of the interviewee.” -Mike Spindell

    Excellent points.

  12. “The real reason the FBI doesn’t want to record interviews is Title 18 of the United States Code, section 1001, the so-called federal false statements law. ‘Without recordings, the sole arbiter of what an interviewee says, is the FBI and its form 302. The threat of a charge if the interviewee is called to testify before a grand jury, or at trial, ensures testimony that is favorable to the prosecution.”

    This pernicious law is at the heart of the FBI’s reluctance to use actual recordings. Since I first heard about it I thought that the law was ridiculous from a civil rights standpoint. A well established practice among all LEO’s in interrogation is creatively lying to get admissions and confessions. This inherently makes the interview process one-sided, severely diminishing the civil rights of the interviewee. The second evil of this law of course is as David and Harvey Silverglate stated, it provides a method to entrap a person into being an FBI informant. Sadly, ones refusal to an FBI interview invokes in the Agency’s mind that one is guilty of something. It almost requires an innocent individual to seek counsel just to protect themselves.

  13. Yet another part of out crooked government partying like it’s 1959.

  14. Child was visiting with me for a few days. He got a call from his guardian ad litim (sp?) During the call, the child said, “Because he abused me.” In court the GA said that the child claimed in the call that he was sexually abused and that mom was coaching him to say it. Total bs.

  15. OS, I’ve been mostly retired since 2009, and the technology has changed. You are talking specifically interviews on criminal cases, and I absolutely agree. I think you agree that the witness must be able to review and change their statement? No matter the technology, in the interest of truth and fairness for the witnes;, the mere recording[ written,voice or video], is inadequate. That applies to criminal and civil matters.

  16. Anonymously posted, I agree, especially when mothers report suspected child abuse by fathers to state-run social service agencies. I have always said that these agencies should have to read the mother Miranda warnings before she proceeds to make a report, if she believes her child has been abused by anyone who may have custodial rights. It should be a specialized form of Miranda warning:

    You are considering making a report of suspected child abuse.
    You have the right to reconsider and just go home and shut up.
    Anything you say can be used against you in any way.
    Anything you do NOT say can be inferred from what you do say.
    Your motivation in making this report can be questioned without regard to whether the report itself is warranted.
    Your personality and your entire medical, pschological and personal history can be scrutinized and all your privacy from infancy can be violated to ascertain whether or not you are a good or bad person with good or bad motives.
    All your relationships in your life can be subject to judgment and conclusion by your enemies or people who disagree with you regardless of any overt act you have done or not done.
    All evidence that you are correct in making this report can be ignored or even ruled to be inadmissible in a court of law.
    A determination that nobody can tell if your report is correct or not can be interpreted to mean that you are a liar, non-credible, and it can lead to any kind of civil or criminal action against you.
    All your constitutional rights may be canceled, and any attempt on your part to recoup your rights or any other privileges may avail you nothing.

    OK, what did you say your name was?

  17. Regarding nick’s comment above at 10:31AM.

    With new digital recorders and sophisticated voice recognition technology, transcribing has become a lot easier. Record on the digital recorder, plug in the USB cord, turn on a program such as Dragon and you are good to go as soon as edits are fed into the transcript identifying which person is speaking. The audio files are easy to save to disc as well.

    There is no excuse whatsoever to not make a record unless the investigator is trying to hide something. Given that a digital voice recorder with 4GB of memory can be had for less than $25, there is simply no excuse.

Comments are closed.