Torture's Rendition

April 23, 2009 Topic: Terrorism Region: Americas

Torture's Rendition

The interrogator who located al-Zarqawi argues that torturing terror prisoners is the wrong approach. The fact we haven’t found bin Laden shows harsh interrogation techniques have failed.

As a former senior military interrogator, it's deeply troubling to me after reading the recently released torture memos that we doubted our ability to win the battle of wits in the interrogation booth and resorted to torturing and abusing prisoners. There is no profession that is successful 100 percent of the time. Doctors can't cure all patients.

When I was in Iraq leading an interrogation team hunting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda, we experienced failures. The highly skilled soldiers that my task force sent out to capture and kill terrorists based on my team's information sometimes failed.  And, occasionally, pilots missed their targets. We must accept that we can lose battles and still win the war.

On the path to Zarqawi, my interrogations team encountered al-Qaeda leaders who never cooperated. Those sessions were opportunities to refine our skills. It made us better interrogators and we later used those refined skills to string together a series of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.

Those who tout the successes of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah are omitting at least one important fact. Neither man gave up Osama bin Laden. Every good interrogator knows that a detainee can give up information that sells out the men and operations below him. They need only protect their leader for the organization to survive. The fact that Osama bin Laden is still alive is proof that waterboarding does not work. The more important fact, however, is that our policy of torture and abuse has cost us American lives.

As a senior interrogator in Iraq, I conducted more than three hundred interrogations and monitored more than one thousand. I heard numerous foreign fighters state that the reason they came to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Our policy of torture and abuse is Al-Qaeda's number one recruiting tool. These same insurgents have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of our troops in Iraq, not to mention Iraqi civilians. Torture and abuse are counterproductive in the long term and, ultimately, cost us more lives than they save.


The more important argument, however, is the moral one. One of al-Qaeda's goals is to prove that America does not live up to its principles. They assert that we are a nation of hypocrites. By engaging in torture and abuse, we are playing into their hands. This war has two fronts-protecting our security by thwarting terrorist attacks and preserving American principles. We cannot become our enemy in seeking to defeat him.

Americans are plenty smart enough to convince al-Qaeda members to cooperate. My interrogation team did it time and time again with the most hardened al-Qaeda terrorists, even when they were familiar with our methods. Criminal investigators face the same challenge every day in America with suspects who watch Law & Order or NYPD Blue and learn interrogation techniques. Yet, every day detectives elicit confessions, just as I did when I was working as a federal agent.

I told my interrogators in Iraq, "The things that make you a great American are the same things that will make you a great interrogator. Leverage your culture-tolerance, cultural understanding, compassion, intellect and ingenuity." Those are things that win wars.


Matthew Alexander spent fourteen years in the U.S. Air Force. 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-Qaeda 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 (Free Press, 2008).