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Context of 'November 30, 2008: Former Interrogator Harshly Critical of US Torture Practices'

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A simulation of waterboarding arranged by ABC News.A simulation of waterboarding arranged by ABC News. [Source: ABC News]According to an ABC News report in September 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden bans the use of waterboarding some time in 2006, with the approval of the White House. It is not known when exactly the technique is banned that year, but presumably it takes place after Hayden becomes CIA director (see May 5, 2006) and in response to the Supreme Court decision mandating that terror suspects must be given treatment consistent with the Geneva Conventions (see July 12, 2006). Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that simulates drowning and is usually referred to as torture. Allegedly, the CIA last used waterboarding in 2003 on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and “It is believed that waterboarding was used on fewer than five ‘high-value’ terrorist subjects” (see May 2002-2003). John Sifton of Human Rights Watch later says the ban “a good thing, but the fact remains that the entire [CIA interrogation] program is illegal.” [ABC News, 9/14/2007] Over a year before Hayden’s decision, Justice Department official Daniel Levin had himself subjected to simulated waterboarding to help him determine if waterboarding was indeed torture (see Late 2004-Early 2005). Levin intended to issue a memo condemning the practice as beyond the bounds of the law, but was forced out of the Justice Department before he could make that ruling.

Entity Tags: Daniel Levin, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, White House, Central Intelligence Agency, John Sifton, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Michael Hayden, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.The dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. [Source: US army]Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the supposed leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is apparently killed in a US airstrike north of Baghdad. There are contradictory details of what exactly happened in the airstrike, and three days later the Washington Post will report that “circumstances surrounding the killing [remain] cloudy.” [Washington Post, 6/10/2006] His killing is hailed by US and Iraqi officials as the most significant public triumph for US-allied forces since the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein. For instance, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld calls him “the leading terrorist in Iraq and one of three senior al-Qaeda leaders worldwide.” The Washington Post calls al-Zarqawi the “mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq.” [Washington Post, 6/8/2006; Washington Post, 6/10/2006] These pronouncements and media reports ignore a revelation made two months earlier by the Washington Post that the US military has been engaged in a propaganda campaign to exaggerate al-Zarqawi’s importance. The newspaper had reported that Zarqawi wasn’t behind nearly as many attacks as commonly reported (see October 4, 2004 and April 10, 2006). Even a Washington Post article about the propaganda surrounding al-Zarqawi published two days after his death will fail to mention any of the details provided in the Post’s original reporting on the campaign. [Washington Post, 6/10/2006] Later in the month, an audiotape surfaces in which bin Laden supposedly praises al-Zarqawi as a martyr (see June 30, 2006), calling him a “brave knight” and a “lion of jihad.” US officials say the tape is genuine, however it should be noted that a letter from 2004 said to tie al-Zarqawi to al-Qaeda leadership is believed by many experts to be a US-government promoted hoax (see April 10, 2006). [Washington Post, 6/30/2006] Al-Zarqawi did pledge loyalty to bin Laden in 2004, but they don’t appear to have been closely linked before then and there even are doubts about how close their relationship was after that time (see October 17, 2004).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Donald Rumsfeld, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Iraq under US Occupation

A former Air Force interrogator writing under the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander” pens an impassioned plea against the use of torture for the Washington Post. Alexander is a former Special Operations soldier with war experience in Bosnia and Kosovo before volunteering to serve as a senior interrogator in Iraq from February 2006 through August 2006. He writes that while he served in Iraq, his team “had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war.” Yet upon his return, Alexander writes that he was less inclined to celebrate American success than “consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the US military conducts interrogations in Iraq.” Since then, Alexander has written a book, How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq (see December 2-4, 2008). He writes that interrogation techniques used against terror suspects in Iraq both “betrays our traditions” and “just doesn’t work.”
Army Used 'Guantanamo Model' of Interrogation - When he joined the team hunting for al-Zarqawi, he was astonished to find that “[t]he Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the US Army Field Manual, the interrogators’ bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules—and often break them.… These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.”
New and Different Methodology - Alexander refused to allow his interrogators to use such tactics, he writes, and instead taught them a new set of practices: “one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of ‘ruses and trickery’). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.” Alexander writes that his attitude, and that of his colleagues, changed during this time. “We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shi’ite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money.” When Alexander pointed this out to General George Casey, then the top US commander in Iraq, Casey ignored him. Alexander writes that Casey’s successor, General David Petraeus, used some of the same “rapport-building” techniques to help boost the “Anbar Awakening,” which saw tens of thousands of Sunnis repudiate al-Zarqawi and align themselves with the US. And, the techniques persuaded one of al-Zarqawi’s associates to tell where he was hiding, giving the US a chance to find and kill him (see June 8, 2006).
Little Overall Change - Even the success in locating and killing al-Zarqawi had little effect on US interrogation methods outside of Alexander’s unit. He left Iraq still unsettled about the methods being used; shortly after his return, he was horrified at news reports that the CIA had waterboarded detainees to coerce information from them (see Between May and Late 2006). Such hard-handed techniques are not only illegal and morally reprehensible, Alexander notes, they usually don’t work. He writes: “Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there’s the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.” He remembers one jihadist who told him: “I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.”
Torture Breeds Terrorism - Alexander writes that while in Iraq, he learned that the primary reason foreign jihadists came to Iraq to fight Americans was because of their outrage and anger over the abuses carried out at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. “Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq,” he writes. “The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of US soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me—unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.”
Writing about His Experiences - Alexander began writing about his time in Iraq after returning to the US. When he submitted his book for the Defense Department’s review (standard procedure to ensure no classified information is being released), he writes that he “got a nasty shock.” The Pentagon delayed the review past the first scheduled printing date, then redacted what Alexander says was “an extraordinary amount of unclassified material—including passages copied verbatim from the Army’s unclassified Field Manual on interrogations and material vibrantly displayed on the Army’s own Web site.” Alexander was forced to file a lawsuit to get the review completed and to appeal the redactions. “Apparently, some members of the military command are not only unconvinced by the arguments against torture; they don’t even want the public to hear them.”
Conclusions - How we conduct ourselves in the “war on terror” helps define who we are as Americans, Alexander writes. “Murderers like Zarqawi can kill us, but they can’t force us to change who we are. We can only do that to ourselves.” It is up to Americans, including military officers directly involved in the battle against terrorist foes, “to protect our values not only from al-Qaeda but also from those within our own country who would erode them.” He continues: “We’re told that our only options are to persist in carrying out torture or to face another terrorist attack. But there truly is a better way to carry out interrogations—and a way to get out of this false choice between torture and terror.” With the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House, Alexander describes himself as “quite optimistic” that the US will renounce torture. “But until we renounce the sorts of abuses that have stained our national honor, al-Qaeda will be winning. Zarqawi is dead, but he has still forced us to show the world that we do not adhere to the principles we say we cherish. We’re better than that. We’re smarter, too.” [Washington Post, 11/30/2008]

Entity Tags: Matthew Alexander, US Department of Defense, US Department of the Air Force, US Department of the Army, Central Intelligence Agency, Barack Obama, David Petraeus, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, George Casey

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Cover of ‘How to Break a Terrorist.’Cover of ‘How to Break a Terrorist.’ [Source: Military (.com)]Former Iraq interrogator “Matthew Alexander” (a pseudonym) publishes his book How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. Alexander has just published an editorial in the Washington Post detailing his success in using non-coercive interrogation techniques to locate terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and denouncing the use of torture by US interrogators in Iraq and Guantanamo (see November 30, 2008). Time’s Gilbert Cruz writes, “Structured around a series of interrogations, [Alexander’s book] details the battle of wills between ‘gators [Alexander’s term for interrogators] and suspects as well as the internal fight between Alexander’s team and the old-school military inquisitors used to more brutal methods of questioning.” In his book, Alexander writes that these “old-school” interrogation tactics not only failed to elicit useful information, they “led down the disastrous path to the Abu Ghraib scandal.” Cruz calls the book “a claustrophobic read,” bringing the reader into the interrogation rooms with him, his partner, and the detainee during marathon questioning sessions. However, “Alexander scarcely discusses the theories behind his interrogation strategy, its derivation, or whether the US military continues to use it.” He concludes, “[A] fuller epilogue could have broadened the story beyond this single set of circumstances.” [Time, 12/2/2008]
'Times Where You Have to be Harsher' - In an interview about the book, Fox News host Sean Hannity attempts to assert that there will be times when torture is necessary to gain critical information. Alexander refuses to agree. Hannity says: “But I do think there’s going to be times where you have to be harsher. That’s an outsider’s view. Never? It never will work?” Alexander replies: “No.… I don’t say that torture doesn’t work; it does work on occasion. But what I say is that there’s better ways to do it.” [Fox News, 12/3/2008]
'Extremely Ineffective and Counter-Productive' - In another interview the same evening, Alexander tells MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann that torture is “extremely ineffective and counter-productive to what we are trying to accomplish in both the short-term and the long-term.” He explains: “In the short-term, when you torture somebody, it hardens their resolve, the information that you get is unreliable. And if you do get reliable information, you’re able to stop a terrorist attack, al-Qaeda is then going to use the fact that we torture people to recruit new members, and then we’re going to have to deal with a whole new wave of terrorists.” In the MSNBC interview, Alexander calls for an outright ban on torture and the retraining of US interrogators in non-coercive methods of questioning. [MSNBC, 12/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Matthew Alexander, Gilbert Cruz, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

John Yoo, the former Bush administration legal adviser who authored numerous opinions on the legality of torture, detentions without legal representation, and warrantless wiretapping (see November 6-10, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, August 1, 2002, and August 1, 2002, among others), writes an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal opposing the Obama administration’s intent to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (see January 20, 2009 and January 22, 2009)) and restrict the CIA’s ability to torture detainees (see January 22, 2009). Yoo, now a law professor and a member of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, writes that while President Obama’s decision “will please his base” and ease the objections to the Bush “imperial presidency,” it will “also seriously handicap our intelligence agencies from preventing future terrorist attacks.” Yoo writes that the Obama decisions mark a return “to the failed law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism that prevailed before Sept. 11, 2001.” Yoo recommends that Obama stay with what he calls “the Bush system” of handling terror suspects. Yoo fails to note that the US law enforcement system prevented, among others, the “millennium bombing” plot (see December 14, 1999), the plot to bomb New York City’s Lincoln and Holland Tunnels (see June 24, 1993), and Operation Bojinka (see January 6, 1995).
Obama Needs to be Able to Torture Prisoners Just as Bush Did, Yoo Declares - And by eschewing torture, Obama is giving up any chance on forcing information from “the most valuable sources of intelligence on al-Qaeda” currently in American custody. The Bush administration policies prevented subsequent terrorist attacks on the US, Yoo contends, and Obama will need the same widespread latitude to interrogate and torture prisoners that Bush employed: “What is needed are the tools to gain vital intelligence, which is why, under President George W. Bush, the CIA could hold and interrogate high-value al-Qaeda leaders. On the advice of his intelligence advisers, the president could have authorized coercive interrogation methods like those used by Israel and Great Britain in their antiterrorism campaigns. (He could even authorize waterboarding, which he did three times in the years after 9/11.)” It is noteworthy that Yoo refused to confirm that Bush ordered waterboarding of suspects during his previous Congressional hearings (see June 26, 2008).
Interrogations Must be 'Polite' - According to Yoo, in forcing the CIA and other US interrogators to follow the procedures outlined in the Army Field Manual, they can no longer use “coercive techniques, threats and promises, and the good-cop bad-cop routines used in police stations throughout America.… His new order amounts to requiring—on penalty of prosecution—that CIA interrogators be polite. Coercive measures are unwisely banned with no exceptions, regardless of the danger confronting the country.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009] Yoo is incorrect in this assertion. The Army Field Manual explicitly countenances many of the “coercive techniques, threats and promises, and the good-cop bad-cop routines” Yoo says it bans. Further, the Field Manual says nothing about requiring interrogators to be “polite.” [Army, 9/2006] And actual field interrogators such as the Army’s Matthew Alexander have repeatedly said that torturing prisoners is ineffective and counterproductive, while building relationships and treating prisoners with dignity during interrogations produces usable, reliable intelligence (see November 30, 2008).
Shutting Down Military Commissions - Obama’s order to stay all military commission trials and to review the case of “enemy combatant” Ali Saleh al-Marri (see June 23, 2003) is also mistaken, Yoo writes. Yoo fears that Obama will shut down the military commissions in their entirety and instead transfer detainees charged with terrorist acts into the US civilian court system. He also objects to Obama’s apparent intent to declare terrorists to be prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, instead of following the Bush precedent of classifying terrorists “like pirates, illegal combatants who do not fight on behalf of a nation and refuse to obey the laws of war.” To allow terror suspects to have rights under Geneva and the US legal system, Yoo asserts, will stop any possibility of obtaining information from those suspects. Instead, those suspects will begin using the legal system to their own advantage—refusing to talk, insisting on legal representation and speedy trials instead of cooperating with their interrogators. “Our soldiers and agents in the field will have to run more risks as they must secure physical evidence at the point of capture and maintain a chain of custody that will stand up to the standards of a civilian court,” Yoo writes. [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009] In reality, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), as well as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) and the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006), all mandate that detainees must be handled according to the Geneva Conventions.
Risk to Americans - Another effect of transferring detainees into the civilian justice system, Yoo claims, is to allow “our enemies to obtain intelligence on us.” Defense lawyers will insist on revealing US intelligence—information and methods—in open court, and will no doubt force prosecutors to accept plea bargains “rather than risk disclosure of intelligence secrets.”
Obama 'Open[ed] the Door to Further Terrorist Acts on US Soil' - Obama said in his inaugural speech that the US must “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Yoo calls that statement “naive,” and writes, “That high-flying rhetoric means that we must give al-Qaeda—a hardened enemy committed to our destruction—the same rights as garden-variety criminals at the cost of losing critical intelligence about real, future threats.” By making his choices, Yoo writes, “Mr. Obama may have opened the door to further terrorist acts on US soil by shattering some of the nation’s most critical defenses.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/29/2009]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Barack Obama, American Enterprise Institute, Wall Street Journal, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Upon his return from a brief tour of the Guantanamo detention facility (see January 30, 2009), Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) delivers a speech on the floor of the Senate recommending that the facility remain open, despite President Obama’s decision to close it (see January 22, 2009). Inhofe says, “The military detention facilities at GTMO meet the highest international standards and are a fundamental part of protecting the lives of Americans from terrorism.” He says “[t]he detainees are being treated humanely,” there are “two lawyers for every detainee that has been charged or had charges preferred against them,” and there is one health care professional for every two detainees, ensuring that they receive the highest level of medical care (see April-May 2002, August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003, and March 10-April 15, 2007). Guantanamo “is the only complex in the world that can safely and humanely hold these individuals who pose such a grave security risk to the US,” Inhofe insists. “It is a secure location away from population centers, provides the maximum security required to prevent escape, provides multiple levels of confinement opportunities based on the compliance of the detainee, and provides medical care not available to a majority of the population of the world.” He goes on: “Furthermore, GTMO is the single greatest repository of human intelligence in the war on terror. This intelligence has prevented terrorist attacks and saved lives in the past and continues to do so today (see Summer 2000 and November 30, 2008). New intelligence is continually being collected from detainees at GTMO and is being used to fight terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe.” Since the US “will continue to capture, hold and detain enemy combatants,” he says, “we require a location to safely detain and care for these detainees.” [US Senate, 2/5/2009] Fellow Republican Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who joined Inhofe on the tour, agrees, saying that the Guantanamo facility is “well thought out and in keeping with our nation’s highest ideals.” Burr adds that it is the US guards, not the prisoners, who are being mistreated: “If anyone receives mistreatment at Guantanamo, it is the guard force. They must endure frequent verbal and physical attacks from detainees while maintaining the highest standard of care for those same individuals.” [US Senate, 2/2/2009] Neither Inhofe nor Burr address the hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees, nor the allegations that prisoners are being force-fed and beaten (see February 8, 2009). Satyam Khanna of the left-leaning website Think Progress notes: “It is unclear how Inhofe and his conservative colleagues failed to see 50 detainees on hunger strike, some near death, while touring the prison. Conveniently, none of the senators alerted the public to these facts upon their return.” [Think Progress, 2/9/2009]

Entity Tags: Richard Burr, Barack Obama, James M. Inhofe, Satyam Khanna

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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