In the early days of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. interrogators had their work cut out for them. As Chris Mackey (himself an Army interrogator) and Greg Miller (a reporter for the Los Angeles Times) outline the situation in The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda (Little, Brown, $25.95), "many . . . prisoners had been trained to resist, and our schoolhouse methods were woefully out-of-date." The questioners had to ad-lib, making use of any weaknesses they could discover in their prisoners. (Unlike their counterparts in the later Iraq War, the authors note, these interrogators resorted only to "intellect and psychology," not brutality or physical humiliation.) One of their con games targeted two Pakistani brothers "who had been captured in a raid on a safe house filled with Arabs, passports, money, and weapons, including a surface-to-air missile launcher." Neither would talk, and the interrogators failed in their initial attempts to convince Brother A that Brother B had confessed and that therefore A might as well add what he knew and receive lenient treatment. One day, by a carefully orchestrated plan, the two brothers caught sight of each other in prison -- a brief moment that prompted A to beg for a reunion. Impossible, said the interrogator, but he agreed to tell B that A was "well." Then the interrogator added that it would be a good idea for A to give him some piece of information, "something only your brother would know," to authenticate the message. A said, "If you tell him that I cannot wait to have my nephew sit on my lap again, so I can squeeze his rosy cheeks and kiss him on the nose," B would know that the message was legit.

Then came the crucial deception. The interrogator went to B, asserting that A had confessed to what both brothers had denied: that they'd been abetting a terrorist operation. B was incredulous -- until the interrogator said, "We knew you wouldn't believe it. . . . That's why I asked your brother to tell me something only you would know as evidence of his decision to cooperate." He produced the quote about the rosy-cheeked nephew, whereupon B broke down crying and began to talk.

There is more of this kind of thing in The Interrogators, and the reader's wide-eyed fascination is marred only by a chilling thought: Won't the spilling of these secrets make it harder for future interrogators to get tight-lipped terrorists to crack?

-- Dennis Drabelle