by Matthew Alexander
As a senior interrogator in Iraq (and a former criminal investigator), there was a lesson I learned that served me well: there's more to be learned from what someone doesn't say than from what they do say. Let me dissect former Vice President Dick Cheney's speech on National Security using this model and my interrogation skills.
First, VP Cheney said, "This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately... it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do." He further stated, "It is much closer to the truth that terrorists hate this country precisely because of the values we profess and seek to live by, not by some alleged failure to do so." That is simply untrue. Anyone who served in Iraq, and veterans on both sides of the aisle have made this argument, knows that the foreign fighters did not come to Iraq en masse until after the revelations of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. I heard this from captured foreign fighters day in and day out when I was supervising interrogations in Iraq. What the former vice president didn't say is the fact that the dislike of our policies in the Middle East were not enough to make thousands of Muslim men pick up arms against us before these revelations. Torture and abuse became Al Qaida's number one recruiting tool and cost us American lives.
Secondly, the former vice president, in saying that waterboarding is not torture, never mentions the fact that it was the United States and its Allies, during the Tokyo Trials, that helped convict a Japanese soldier for war crimes for waterboarding one of Jimmie Doolittle's Raiders. Have our morals and values changed in fifty years? He also did not mention that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both prohibited their troops from torturing prisoners of war. Washington specifically used the term "injure" -- no mention of severe mental or physical pain.
Thirdly, the former vice president never mentioned the Senate testimony of Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who successfully interrogated Abu Zubaydah and learned the identity of Jose Padilla, the dirty bomber, and the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) was the mastermind behind 9/11. We'll never know what more we could have discovered from Abu Zubaydah had not CIA contractors taken over the interrogations and used waterboarding and other harsh techniques. Also, glaringly absent from the former vice president's speech was any mention of the fact that the former administration never brought Osama bin Laden to justice and that our best chance to locate him would have been through KSM or Abu Zubaydah had they not been waterboarded.
In addition, in his continued defense of harsh interrogation techniques (aka torture and abuse), VP Cheney forgets that harsh techniques have ensured that future detainees will be less likely to cooperate because they see us as hypocrites. They are less willing to trust us when we fail to live up to our principles. I experienced this firsthand in Iraq when interrogating high-ranking members of Al Qaida, some of whom decided to cooperate simply because I treated them with respect and civility.
The former vice president is confusing harshness with effectiveness. An effective interrogation is one that yields useful, accurate intelligence, not one that is harsh. It speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of interrogations, the goal of which is not to coerce information from a prisoner, but to convince a prisoner to cooperate.
Finally, the point that is most absent is that our greatest success in this conflict was achieved without torture or abuse. My interrogation team found Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq and murderer of tens of thousands. We did this using relationship-building approaches and non-coercive law enforcement techniques. These worked to great effect on the most hardened members of Al Qaida -- spiritual leaders who had been behind the waves of suicide bombers and, hence, the sectarian violence that swept across Iraq. We convinced them to cooperate by applying our intellect. In essence, we worked smarter, not harsher.
Matthew Alexander spent fourteen years in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves. An “investigator turned interrogator”, he deployed to Iraq in 2006, where he led the interrogations team that located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by Coalition Forces. Alexander was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements. He is the author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.