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Profile: Matthew Alexander
Matthew Alexander was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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]
Experts say that the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario, which is often used to justify the use of torture, is fallacious. Many novels (see 1960), movies, and television shows, most recently Fox’s 24 (see Fall 2006), routinely portray a time-critical scene where the hero of the story must torture a prisoner to obtain information needed to avert an imminent attack, usually the “ticking time bomb” planted and ready to explode. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman says that such scenarios are dubious at best. “I’ve personally been told that they happen but I have to admit that in the years, in now the decade I have been told about it, I have become increasingly skeptical,” he says. “A ticking bomb becomes a default assumption which in turn becomes a legitimization or justification for torture. And in actual fact, even though people have told me about it, I have yet to see an actual documented case independently of what I was told.” Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer says that he knows of cases where torture elicited useful and critical information, but refuses to give specifics. CIA officials are unwilling or unable to provide details of the effectiveness of techniques such as waterboarding. Former military interrogator Matthew Alexander (see December 2-4, 2008) says of the CIA’s waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see April 16, 2009 and April 18, 2009), “What I get most out of the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is that any approach—I don’t care what it is—if you have to do it 183 times, it is not working,” he says. “When they did use the waterboard on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, what they were getting each time was the absolute minimum he could get away with. And that’s what you get when you use torture—you get the absolute minimum amount of information.” [National Public Radio, 5/5/2009]
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