“The American Public has a Right to Know That They Do Not Have to Choose Between Torture and Terror”: Six questions for Matthew Alexander, author of How to Break a Terrorist
At 5:15 p.m. on June 7, 2006, two American F-16 fighters dropped 500-pound bombs on a farmhouse about five miles north of the Iraqi town of Baqubah. Within an hour, the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian street thug who had risen to become the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was confirmed. This resulted from one of the most important intelligence breakthroughs of the Iraq War. Matthew Alexander is the pseudonym for an American Air Force major who, through a series of skillful interrogations, secured the information that allowed the military to pinpoint al Zarqawi’s whereabouts and kill him. His book How to Break a Terrorist is a compelling account of the American military’s turn from highly coercive interrogation techniques, which proved consistently unproductive, to confidence-building approaches honed over decades in the American law-enforcement community, which achieved steady success. I put six questions to Major Alexander about his book and the still-ongoing controversy about torture.
1. In the last weeks of the Bush Administration, they’re waging a campaign to convince the public that President-elect Obama’s plans to close Guantánamo, ban torture, and stop extraordinary renditions will make America less safe. Here’s how one of the administration’s apologists recently put things in an op-ed in the New York Times: “if we’d gotten our hands on a senior member of Al Qaeda before 9/11, and knew that an attack likely to kill thousands of Americans was imminent, wouldn’t waterboarding, or taking advantage of the skills of our Jordanian friends, have been the sensible, moral thing to do with a holy warrior who didn’t fear death but might have feared pain?” You actually did have “holy warriors” in your custody who were plotting to kill American soldiers and innocent civilians, and got the results that enabled U.S. fighter bombers to take out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. What do you think of these claims?
In Iraq, we lived the “ticking time bomb” scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda’s best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn’t matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him.
2. One of the most controversial tactics that the Bush Administration adopted in the war on terror involves abusing a prisoner’s religious feelings to degrade or humiliate. Enforced nudity, the use of military dogs, sexually suggestive conduct, and forms of ritual defilement have all been documented as authorized techniques in Iraq and at Guantánamo, even though these techniques are probably illegal. Do you believe that an interrogator can make headway by trashing his subject’s religion or by using religion to degrade? Did you make use of religion in a different way?
First, there’s no doubt in my mind that these tactics are illegal. Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 specifically bans “humiliating and degrading treatment.” Trashing or degrading a detainee’s religion does not help convince a detainee to cooperate. It does just the opposite, reinforcing the reasons why the detainee decided to pick up arms against us.
During training, we were told that religion was a taboo subject because of the types of illegal activities that had occurred at Guantánamo Bay. I disagreed and I often discussed religion with my detainees. I frequently brought my own copy of the Quran into the interrogation booth and asked religious questions, always treating Islam with respect. I’ve read the Quran even though I’m not Muslim. I found my detainees, even high level imams, to be very open to my inquiries. In this way I showed them that I respected their religion and their beliefs and it changed their attitudes towards me and helped me to win their trust. One of our great strengths as Americans is our religious tolerance, a founding principle of our country, and we should use that strength in the interrogation booth to help build rapport with detainees and foster cooperation. As I told my team in Iraq, the things that make you a good American are the same things that will make you a good interrogator.
3. In your book you detail “new approaches” which seem very familiar to me—they are techniques that the FBI has used in interrogation for several decades, focusing on confidence-building. Is that correct? Why did it take so long for tested and proven approaches from the law enforcement world to be used in a military intelligence operation?
You are correct that relationship- (or confidence-) building approaches are not new and have been known to law enforcement for decades. Even World War II interrogators used relationship-building approaches to great success, but we can build on that. Interrogation is an art and a science and, like every discipline, can be improved upon. My group began to integrate relationship-building with other criminal investigative techniques, always tailoring it to the culture at hand. This is what made our techniques new. I watched day in and day out as my group of interrogators used American ingenuity in adapting these approaches for each individual detainee and they were highly effective. Interrogation is about being smarter, not harsher.
Why these techniques have not yet been integrated into intelligence interrogation is a mystery to me. I made a list of criminal investigation techniques that would be effective in interrogations and included it in my “after-action” report. The next administration needs to institutionalize this approach by contracting a cadre of experienced law enforcement officers to help train our intelligence interrogators. This same relationship already exists between civilian and military criminal investigators.
4. You describe members of your team saying that Al Qaeda members did not care about their families, that they were committed ideologues. This was taken as a justification for the use of coercion (usually fear) as the key tool for interrogation. But most counterterrorism experts agree that recruits to radical Islamist groups may be brought in by many factors other than ideology—clan-based affiliations, family, a motive of revenge–even a desire to make some money. It would obviously be vital for an interrogator to get a fix on motivation in forming an approach to getting a prisoner to talk. Does that suggest that American interrogators are being hindered by a politically shaped and unnecessarily crude understanding of the adversary?
Yes. We do ourselves a great disservice by stereotyping our enemies. Al Qaeda is comprised of a variety of individuals each with their own unique motivations for having joined. I can only remember one true ideologue in all the interrogations I conducted or supervised (more than 1,300) and even he started to come around at the end because we treated him with respect. The overwhelming majority of Sunni Iraqis who joined Al Qaeda did so out of need, not want. For some the reason was economic, for others tribal obligations, and for a large number it was for protection from the Shiite militias–the militias that we allowed, after the removal of Saddam, to conduct reprisal killings. When my group of interrogators reached out to these Sunnis and offered them an alternative to fighting against us –fighting with us–they were easily convinced to cooperate and rejected Al Qaeda. Sometimes all it took was an apology from an American for the mistakes we made at the beginning of the war. General David Petraeus proved this point by facilitating the Anbar Awakening. Interrogations are best conducted in the spirit of cooperation and negotiation, not domination and retribution. This is a metaphor for how we should use all of our instruments of power in fighting this war.
5. You note that the Bush Administration insisted on 93 redactions from the text and you had to take them to court, winning only after the book had gone to press. Most of the redactions do not appear to be motivated by legitimate concerns about security; they seem instead to be an effort to derail publication of your book. What do you think this was about? How does your publisher plan to make the redacted texts available to the public?
I believe this was an attempt at censorship and, perhaps, retaliation. On appeal I won 80 of the 93 redactions, so only 13 remain in the book. The Department of Defense redacted an extraordinary amount of unclassified material, including the entire scene where I convinced the man who led us to Zarqawi to cooperate after only six hours of interrogation using a relationship-building approach. The old methods of interrogation had failed for twenty days to convince this man to cooperate. The American public has a right to know that they do not have to choose between torture and terror. There is a better way to conduct interrogations that works more efficiently, keeps Americans safe, and doesn’t sacrifice our integrity. Our greatest victory to date in this war, the death of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (which saved thousands of lives and helped pave the way to the Sunni Awakening), was achieved using interrogation methods that had nothing to do with torture. The American people deserve to know that. In future printings or the paperback version of How to Break a Terrorist we will include the material that we have won on appeal. I am still appealing several remaining redactions of obvious unclassified material.
6. You write that the Bush Administration’s torture policy is responsible for the death of more Americans than perished on 9/11. Explain what you mean by this.
The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The majority of suicide bombings are carried out by foreign fighters who volunteered and came to Iraq with this motivation. Consequently it is clear that at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics. Americans have died from terrorist attacks since 9/11; those Americans just happen to be American soldiers. This is not simply my view–it is widely held among senior officers in the U.S. military today. Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that “U.S. flag-rank officers maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq–as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat–are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.” We owe it to our troops to protect them from terrorist attacks by not conducting torture and we owe it to our forefathers to uphold the American principles that they passed down to us.