Corneliu Pintilescu, “The interrogation stages, strategies, and techniques of the SECURITATE (1948-1964). Case study: The Cluj regional directorate for the security of the people”, (Remembrance in time, Transilvania University Press of Brasov 2012), pp. 131-136.
The topic of the present study has been approached in numerous works and articles on the justice system as an instrument of political repression and manipulation in the communist regimes. One can mention here the already classic works of authors, such as F. Beck, W. Godin, Annie Kriegel, George Hodos and Robert Conquest, who approach the great show trials from the time of the “Great Terror” and the similar trials from Eastern Europe from 1948-1964.2 Apart from focusing on the great “show trials,” another feature of these works is their use of mainly press sources as well as witness and victim accounts. Only after the political changes from 1989 did researchers have access to the archives of the former USSR (less to the judicial archives however). From among the works that were the result of this opening, one can mention those of Michael Ellman, David L. Hoffmann, Roberta T. Manning and Elizabeth A. Wood.3 The opening of the archives of the former USSR was limited however. That is why these important works on the justice system as an instrument of repression in the Communist Bloc did not contain an analysis also from the perspective of the files based on which the respective trials were held. The present study tries to fill this historiographic gap. It will analyze the interrogation stages of the Securitate as well as the strategies and techniques that this oppressive institution widely used based on the source material from the criminal files held in the archives of the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate (NCSAS), which are related to the activity of the Cluj Military Tribunal between 1948 and 1964, as well as the interviews with victims and witnesses of the studied trials. Through strategies we understand the ways in which the inquiry was organized and developed of the inquiry in order to concoct a political criminal felony according to the existing legislation. The interrogation is the central piece in the criminal inquiry of the Securitate.
The confessions obtained during the interrogation provide the essential data that are manipulated during the course of the trial. The material evidence and witness confessions were many times of secondary importance. The structure of the Securitate contained a special directorate called “Criminal investigations,” whose prerogative was the investigation of political crimes and their prosecution in court.4
The inquest strategy was closely connected to the centralized organization of the Securitate. An order of the General Directorate for the Security of the People (GDSP)5 from Bucharest to the Cluj Regional Directorate of the Security of the People demanded explanations for the arrests made without permission from the GDSP.6 This document is one of the many proving that key-moments in an investigation, such as its initiation or the arrest of suspects, depended on approval from the centre. Moreover, due the nature of its rapports with the lower structures, the GDSP exercised tight control over the evolution of the investigation in general and the interrogation in particular. An order of the GDSP dated August 17, 1951, demanded from the Cluj Regional Securitate the arrest of a suspect, his interrogation according to a questionnaire attached to the order, and the dispatch of a copy of the obtained statement to Bucharest.7 A month before, they had received a similar order demanding what kind of facts the investigation must establish upon completion. In this case, the main fact that the investigators had to establish was “the counterrevolutionary religious activities [of the suspects].”8 The information on local events was successively transmitted from the county to the regional and then central level, by means of regular reports. Based on these reports, the GDSP decided on the initiation of an investigation concerning certain suspects. According to the received information, the Bucharest center decided on the arrest of the suspects or the interruption of the investigation. The importance of the GDSP in the development of criminal investigations was partly determined by the fact that it centralized the data collected from all over the country. That is why the local sections depended on the information provided by the Bucharest center. The GDSP benefited from this position and coordinated interrogations by means of its orders and guidance. In certain cases, the guidance of an investigation touched on details, by the dispatch of elaborated questionnaires for the suspects as well as information on the persons of interest and instructions on how investigators had to carry out their tasks.9
The used questionnaires clearly reveal the stages of the interrogation. They were lists of pre-established questions that later shaped the confessions of suspects. Without these questionnaires, which meant to guide suspects during the process of the establishment of their political guilt, the self-accusing statements given under duress risked being contradictory. Even so, the mixture of truth and fiction revealed contradictions that were later invoked in appeals. The effect of questionnaires was the standardization of statements in case the investigation targeted a group of suspects. If the investigators noticed discrepancies among certain pieces of information, they organized a confrontation in which all the suspects with divergent statements participated. The confrontation report signed by the participants confirmed the final version. The fact that most of the investigations usually targeted a group instead of an individual rendered the interrogation a complex action in need of a strategy. The officer leading the investigation at the local level was entrusted with the application of the strategy through the coordination of the
group of investigators that worked on the case. The strategy determined the stages of the interrogation. In the preliminary phase, having an introductory character, the Securitate investigators asked a set of general questions through which they were investigating some leads on the political activity of the suspects and their possible crimes against the regime. These broad questions usually were: “What kind of subversive activities did you carry out against the regime?” or “What counterrevolutionary activities did you carry out?” This type of questions indicates the investigators’ intention to feel out the situation.10 Investigators requested suspects to submit autobiographic accounts and lists of acquaintances in order to make their general evaluation.
The starting point for any interrogation was the presumption of guilt. Since a person was under investigation by the Securitate meant that his/her guilt was self-evident. The only aspect left to be established was the kind of crime he/she committed, under what circumstances, and in what way. The questions asked as well as the concepts used during the interrogation undoubtedly prove that the Securitate conducted its investigation according to the existing penal legislation as well. Further evidence in this regard is the investigators’ stubborn efforts to give the offenses of suspects a political character – even if it was fictitious – in order to be able to prosecute them according to the legal provisions of the Romanian Penal Code. The aim of the interrogation was not the pursuit of truth, but the construction of a political guilt, which implied the commission of offenses that the regime valorized negatively from a political point of view and artificially connected to criminal offenses stipulated in the Penal Code.
In the second stage of the interrogation, the investigators pursued certain leads according to the existing repressive policy and the information they had. They focused on the thorough investigation of these leads through the selection and accumulation of as many incriminating evidence as possible. The leading investigator issued guidelines concerning the separate investigation of the suspects after careful analysis of the biographic data and psychological profile of each of them. Those considered vulnerable from a biographical point of view or psychologically instable were subjected to intense pressure until they broke. Upon finishing the inquiry on the activity of the suspect, the investigators extended their investigation over the suspect’s acquaintances. Thus, they obtained incriminating statements on other people as well. This strategy assured the contamination of those who abetted or kept in contact with the suspect. In the third stage, the investigators synthesized the obtained confessions. The most important document was the final report of the investigation written by the leading investigating officer. Apart from the synthesis of all the obtained statements, this document gave new meanings to the deeds described in the statements, established the commission or non-commission of certain crimes, and decided for or against sending the case further for prosecution in a court of law. Although the existing legislation clearly stipulated that the establishment of an individual’s guilt or innocence was the prerogative of the courts of law, the aforementioned final reports of the Securitate already reached the verdict. These reports had a standard ending note saying: “In conclusion [...] they are
guilty of …”11
Most of the trials from 1948-1964, whose aim was to legalize terror, involved groups of individuals. The individual trial of politically undesirable was a rare occurrence. This is why the investigation in general and the interrogation in particular targeted groups of individuals. The collective investigation of the repression subjects presented a number of advantages. The first was the efficiency of the investigation and sentencing process of an impressive number of individuals. The second advantage was that guilt was easier constructed through the reciprocal contamination of those involved. Collective guilt had additional seriousness and popular impact. A crime committed by a group of individuals, to whom the investigators added an organized character, became more serious that a crime committed individually.
The need for the collective treatment of subjects had a strong influence on the interrogation techniques. The investigation of a group of individuals meant the involvement of an entire team of investigators. The team was lead by a leading investigation officer, who centralized the results and forwarded them to his superiors by means of reports. The isolation of the suspects from the same group was recommended in order to avoid their fraternization and access to information pertaining to the case.
Suspects were usually held in custody in detention cells in the Securitate buildings. However, due to the limited space, their recommended isolation was difficult to put into practice. It became easier when there was a penitentiary nearby, where the suspects could be held in isolation. In order to prevent suspects from knowing the location of their detention place and communicating among themselves during transport, they were blindfolded with special tin glasses.
In order to break the resistance of suspects and obtain their self-incriminating statements, the Securitate made recourse to physical and psychological pressures. The alternation and dosage of these pressures is a fact that many victims noted in their later testimonies.12 Physical pressures did not involve only torture, which is one of the most frequent elements in the memoirs of former political prisoners, but also food and sleep deprivation, which led to the weakening of the suspects’ organism and obviously his resistance capacity. The use of torture was a two-edged weapon because after the signing of the self-incriminating statements the suspects recanted them. In certain cases, the suspect’s vacillation between admitting and recanting these statements undermined the result of the investigation. Here is an example of a piece of evidence that becameunusable by the prosecution: “I admit that until January 25, 1950, I had not admitted to what Captain Desagă said about me, and on January 25 I said I had admitted only for fear of torture.”13
We will not insist on the torture techniques because this topic has been very well covered both in memoirs and the historical research. In many cases, the use of torture was unnecessary because the psychological methods, such as threats and blackmail, proved their efficiency. The psychological methods for the obtaining of confessions were based on a system of collecting and organizing information on the people who came under the scrutiny of the Securitate. During the investigation, the personal file of the suspect comprised a picture, personal data, the “identification elements,” “prior offenses,” “the result of the house search,” “the information resulting from his [and other peoples’] statements,” “confrontations,” “personal descriptions,” “conclusions,” and “proposals.”14
According to the biographical data and the description, guidelines were issued as to the manner in which the suspects would be approached during the interrogation. Descriptions were short and tried to note the weak points of the suspect. Based on the information gathered from the suspects in custody, the leading investigation officer together with his superiors decided on which suspects the investigation should focus as well as on the manner in which the interrogation would be conducted. A note of the Cluj Regional Directorate for the Security of the People (CRDSP) to the GDSP in Bucharest, dated July 29, 1952 and referring to an investigation, made an evaluation of the interrogation work and put forward proposals.
Those who showed resistance during the course of the investigation were proposed for internment in “work units,”15 because they were considered “dangerous elements,” those who fell into the trap of the blackmail of the Securitate became informants, and those who confessed to their guilt were further investigated in view of their trial in a court of law.16
Manipulation was another method that was successfully used to obtain selfincriminating statements. Those who came into contact with the Securitate for the first time were unaware of its tricks. The investigation could begin in a non-violent and persuasive manner. The suspect was assured that he was brought in only for some routine questions. This way, the investigators obtained from the suspect confessions that in his view were not serious, such as the listening to Western radio stations and the voicing of critical remarks on the policy of the government or the Soviet Union.
By starting from apparently unimportant details, the Securitate managed to construct - by means of additions, exaggerations, and reinterpretations – seriouscounterrevolutionary crimes. Another manipulation method was to make suspects believe that the Securitate knew everything on their life and they could not hide anything away from it. For instance, suspects were surprised by the mentioning of certain details from their personal life, which convinced them that the Securitate knew everything about them and resistance was futile. Furthermore, investigators made full use of the frictions that appeared within a group of suspects. In order to break the solidarity of the group, investigators would show to some suspects the damaging statements that the other suspects made on them or would promise their release or a lighter sentence in exchange of cooperation.
In conclusion, we underline that the interrogation strategies of the Securitate were influenced by its centralized way of functioning. In practice, this meant that the lower echelons of the Securitate gathered the information and sent it further to the higher echelons that centralized it at the regional or national level, took the important decisions concerning ongoing investigations, and offered guidelines on the manner in which these decisions had to be implemented at the local level. Although the evolution of interrogations varied from case to case, we can use three stages as a theoretical model in the analysis of an interrogation: a first stage when the accumulation of information was achieved horizontally (this stage began before the arrest), a second stage when, following certain options, the interrogation focused on certain suspects and issues, and a third stage when the investigating officers synthesized the obtained data and gave them coherence. For the obtaining of self-incriminating statements, physical and psychological pressures were used. Although physical torture is the most recurrent method mentioned in memoirs, there are many cases in which manipulation and blackmail proved sufficient. When comparing the methods of the Securitate with those of other security agencies from the Communist Bloc, we note the similarity among them. The creation of the Securitate according to the Soviet model and with the assistance of Soviet councilors is the explanation for the existence of these similarities.