Former U.S. Interrogator: Torture Policy Has Led to More Deaths than 9/11 Attacks

Human Rights

Amy Goodman: Writing under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, a former special intelligence operations officer, who led an interrogations team in Iraq two years ago, has written a stunning op-ed in the Washington Post called "I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq." In it, he details his direct experience with torture practices put into effect in Iraq in 2006. He conducted more than 300 interrogations and supervised more than a thousand and was awarded a Bronze Star for his achievements in Iraq.

In the article, he says torture techniques used in Iraq consistently failed to produce actionable intelligence and that methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which rest on confidence building, consistently worked and gave the interrogators access to critical information.

He writes: "My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I'm still alarmed about that today."

He goes on to say that the number of Americans killed in Iraq because of the U.S. military's use of torture is more than 3,000. He writes: "It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in [Iraq] have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. 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."

Well, the former interrogator has just written a book. It's called How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. The publication date for the book was delayed for six weeks due to the Pentagon's vetting of it. The soldier is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons. He joins us now in our firehouse studio in one of his first national broadcast interviews.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

Matthew Alexander: Thanks for having me.

AG: It's good to have you with us. Why don't you want to use your name?

MA: It's just basic security concerns. You know, al-Qaida has promised reprisals for the killing of Zarqawi. So it's just to protect myself and my family. But, you know, after the death of Zarqawi, the response was actually, I thought, quite limited. It was less than what I would expect. And I think it goes to show how much even people within his own organization disliked him.

AG: Why was it so hard to get your book out of the Pentagon? I mean, you've got the book. You have to hand it in to be vetted, but they wouldn't release it.

MA: Yeah, you know, I turned it in in the middle of July, and they're supposed to do the review within 30 days, and they didn't do that. I missed the first printing date. When they finally did come back with a review of the book after two months, they had extracted an extraordinary amount of material. There was 93 redactions made. I sued -- you know, I sued the Department of Defense first to review the book and then to argue the redactions, because they had redacted obvious unclassified material, things that I had taken straight out of the unclassified field manual and also some items that were directly off the Army's own Web site. So, eventually they acquiesced on 80 of the 93 redactions. And if you -- when you read the book, you'll see that the redactions within -- some of the redactions are still in the book, because we had to go to print before we had the results of the appeal.

AG: So why don't you talk about your time in Iraq? You were a chief interrogator. Explain how it works. And what is a " 'gator"?

MA: A 'gator, an interrogator, I mean, their job within the mission is to extract information from detainees, intelligence -- useful intelligence information. And it's a timely art. It's one in which we're always under a lot of pressure to produce results quickly, because intelligence is very time sensitive.

And when I was in Iraq, I was in charge of a team of interrogators assigned to a task force, and our mission was to find Zarqawi. We believed at that time, at least our leadership believed, that if we could kill Zarqawi, we could slow down the path toward civil war.

AG: Explain who he is, who he was.

MA: Well, Zarqawi, he was an extremist. You know, he got his start as a thug in Jordan, where he spent some time in prison. He had spent time in Afghanistan, two tours in Afghanistan. And he had come back to Iraq prior to our invasion to set up a resistance. And he was also the author of the civil war in Iraq. He was the one behind the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque that started the civil war between Sunni and Shia. And it was his idea that if they targeted Shia civilians in suicide bombing attacks that he could bog American forces down in a civil war and force us to leave.

AG: So, how did you get information about his whereabouts?

MA: Well, the things that we used in Iraq is we took the methods that had been used prior to our arrival, and we changed them. The methods that the Army was using were based on fear and control, and those techniques are not effective. They're not the most effective way to get people to cooperate. My team was a little bit different, because we were made up of several criminal investigators who had experience doing criminal interrogations, in which we don't use fear and control. We use techniques that are based on understanding, cultural understanding, sympathy, things like intellect, ingenuity, innovation. And we started to apply these types of techniques to the interrogations. And ultimately, we were able to put together a string of successes within the al-Qaida organization that led to Zarqawi's location.

AG: What does that mean, sympathy, those kind of -- using that approach?

MA: Let me just give you one example out of the book. Let's go to the example where I convince one of Zarqawi's associates to give up a path towards Zarqawi. This man was a highly religious man. He was deeply schooled in Islam. He had spent 14 years studying Islam. And we had tried fear-and-control techniques on him for a period of about three weeks, and they didn't work. He had maintained that he had nothing to do with al-Qaida.

AG: What do you mean, "fear and control?"

MA: By fear and control, I mean using tactics that are basically intended to intimidate a detainee. You're not allowed, within the rules of interrogation, to threaten a detainee, but there's ways to create fear without threatening a detainee. And those methods, although legal, are not most effective. The methods that --

AG: What are they? How do you inspire fear?

MA: You can inspire fear by -- you can state what are the consequences for someone's actions.

AG: You can say you're going to kill them if they don't talk?

MA: You can't say that you're going to kill somebody if they don't talk. You can state what are the punishments for a certain crime, and if that person's been involved in that crime, then the point will get across. I think the JAGs, the military lawyers, the terms that they use is you can't put the dagger on the table.

Now, if you look at the way we do criminal interrogations in the United States, you can certainly tell a criminal suspect what are the consequences for a crime that they've committed, or that you suspect they've committed. So that, I think, is a permissible and ethical way to conduct an interrogation. However, it's not the most effective. The most-effective techniques are those that rely on rapport-building and relationship-building and then adapt that into the culture of the person that you're interrogating.

AG: So talk now, moving from fear to what you did with him.

MA: What we did is we got to know our detainees, first of all. You can't effectively build a relationship with somebody and convince him to cooperate unless you know them. You have to get to know what motivates them, why they've joined the insurgency, why they decided to pick up arms against you. And then, once you understand that, then you can appeal to them and offer them some type of negotiation or compromise or incentive. And, you know, the best incentives that we could apply were ones that were intangible, things like hope, things like friendship, like respect, like wasta, which in Arab culture is a term referring to status.

You know, ultimately, interrogation is just one tool we're using in this war. And we have to conduct ourselves while we're doing interrogations according to American principles. If we don't, then we're not living up to the ideals that we proclaim to have. And for me, this war, it's more about preserving our American principles than it is about defeating al-Qaida. We can't become our enemies in trying to defeat them.

AG: You did over 300 interrogations yourself, you supervised over a thousand. But the key person who provided the information, the whereabouts of Zarqawi, you said you move from fear to this next approach -- explain it.

MA: Yes. The man who ultimately led us to Zarqawi, I call Abu Hadir in the book. And Abu Hadir was an interesting character. He was the Hannibal Lecter, if you will, of al-Qaida. He had the same appearance and the same sort of general demeanor. The way he talked was very similar. He was a grand egoist. He enjoyed having his ego stroked, and he wanted to believe that he was a man of power and influence.

And so, instead of trying to tear that down, which is a technique that we tried -- or some interrogators tried prior to my interrogation of him -- I decided to build rapport with him and to stroke his ego and to build him up. And what I ended up developing during one six-hour interrogation was a very strong relationship with him of trust. And I believe he trusted me, because we spoke extensively about the Quran, which I've read, and I showed respect for his beliefs and his religion, and I showed respect for the Sunni Iraqi cause in Iraq and how difficult it was after our invasion.

AG: He was from Iraq.

MA: He was from Iraq. He was an Iraqi. He had worked in the government prior to our arrival in Iraq, and he had lost his job. And this is another thing that you can get out of my book that you're not going to hear anywhere else, is you're going to hear the voice of Iraqis, the Sunnis who joined al-Qaida, and you can hear the reasons why they joined, which you can't read anywhere else. You know, our government tells you that -- or we have said in the past -- that all the Sunnis that were joining the insurgency were extremists. And that's not the case. You can hear the voices of Iraqi Sunnis talking about the variety of reasons why they joined. Some were economic. Some were social. Some were tribal affiliation. A large number of Sunni Iraqis joined the insurgency because they needed protection from the Shia militias that we had allowed to run loose when we disbanded the government.

AG: And their feelings about Saddam Hussein?

MA: You know, the Sunni Iraqis that I interrogated had no love for Saddam. They despised him. A lot of them were Baath Party members simply because you had to be a Baath Party member to have a job in Iraq under Saddam. And they were glad to see him gone. But at the same time, they were very concerned about their access to future oil and wealth and how were they going to feed their families. And so, many of them had joined al-Qaida in an effort to try and establish some type of Sunni power in Iraq, post-Saddam.

AG: And what did they say about Zarqawi?

MA: Well, you know, a lot of them, although they had even -- many of them had participated or in some way influenced or helped Zarqawi with his campaign of suicide bombings -- the large majority of them did not believe in his ideology. Let me give you the case of one of the guys that I interrogated early on. His name was Abu Ali, and he was an imam. And he had joined the insurgency because one of his best friends had been killed by a Shia militia, and he turned to al-Qaida for protection. He, at one point, even blessed suicide bombers. But, you know, in the end, he told me, he said, "Matthew, I don't believe in this, in bombing Shia civilians. My mother is Shia. Iraqis have a long history of intermarriage between Sunni and Shia. But we've been forced in this situation because of the Shia militias. And so, we have to do this to protect ourselves."

AG: So, how you extracted the actual information for where Zarqawi was? Bush believed that Zarqawi was responsible for the U.N. bombing also?

MA: He was. Zarqawi was responsible for a number of bombings. Even when he wasn't directly planning things, he obviously was directing or inspiring others to exact his campaign of targeting civilians. The man who ultimately led us to Zarqawi, Abu Hadir, he ultimately turned on Zarqawi because he rejected his ideology of extremism, and also because I promised him a new way ahead, a way in which Americans could work together with Sunni Iraqis, we could find middle ground to negotiate, to compromise and work together to battle against these types of extremists. And Abu Hadir ultimately rejected Zarqawi and decided that it was best for the future of Iraq if Zarqawi was dead.

AG: How long did this take?

MA: Well, the interrogation -- he was scheduled to leave the prison where I was at, and I had about six hours to sit down with him and convince him to give us some information. And it wasn't until the last 30 minutes before he was supposed to get on a helicopter that I was able to convince him to work together with us and to sell out his cause.

AG: Where were they going to take him?

MA: He would have been transferred to another prison, either Abu Ghraib or one of the other prisons.

AG: Where were you?

MA: I can't say the exact location where I was.

AG: And so, in that last 30 minutes, well, then he had more time with you?

MA: Yeah, you know, I tell in the story, the book, of this last 30 minutes, because, you know, I could hear the clock ticking in my head, and I knew this man could lead us to Zarqawi.

AG: How did you know that?

MA: I knew it, because I had been watching him, monitoring his interrogations for a few weeks. And I guess it was a gut feeling. You know, it was intuition to know that...

AG: Where had he been picked up?

MA: He had been picked up in a house with suicide bombers during a raid. There was five men captured in the house, and my team interrogated those five men. And the suicide bombers had been killed in the house by our soldiers during a very exciting, daring raid, I should say. And he had pretended for a long time that he was there accidentally. He was supposed to have come to film a wedding, which obviously was a lie. But it was obvious to me from watching him over a period of weeks that this was a very important person and that he had to have been very close to the higher echelons of al-Qaida.

AG: And so, those last 30 minutes?

MA: Those last 30 minutes, I decided to take a gamble. I decided to take a risk, which is -- part of interrogations is risk-taking and not being afraid to lay it out on the line. And so, during those last 30 minutes, I told him that I already knew that he was close to somebody and that if he would provide me the name of that person and show me that he trusted me, that I could help him. And I actually had no particular person in mind. It was a ruse. But he believed me, and he told me that he was friends with Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who is now the current leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and who was Zarqawi's right-hand man.

AG: And so, what information did he give up then? Where he was?

MA: Well, eventually -- at that point, we had just been able to establish that he was in the higher echelon. It took us a period of weeks after that, about two weeks, to get him to admit that he was friends with Zarqawi's personal spiritual adviser, who was Sheikh Abu Abdul Rahman, who was the person who led us to Zarqawi. But he told us not only who Rahman was, but how to find Rahman and how we would know when he went to meet with Zarqawi.

AG: And where was Rahman?

MA: Rahman was in Baghdad, in his home. And he was actually a coordinator of events also for Zarqawi. He was a spiritual adviser. Zarqawi used Iraqi imams like Abu Hadir and like Rahman to try to legitimize his suicide bombings against Shia civilians, and in exchange, these people got money and arms from al-Qaida. So that was his way of legitimizing what he was doing.

AG: Why was it a risk to say you would help him if he turned in someone important?

MA: It's a risk because it's very hard to make that come true. At the time that I was in Iraq, we had no program to reach out to Sunnis and to literally work with them. We could promise them that. And certainly, if they cooperated with us when they went before a panel of judges later for sentencing, they would look favorably on their cooperation. However, we had no program like they have now that Gen. [David] Petraeus put in place to reach out to Sunnis and to arm them and to physically work together with them.

AG: So you find Rahman, you bring him in, or you follow him to where he's going to meet with Zarqawi?

MA: We follow him. And yeah, let me point out that, you know, this was an entire team effort. There was a huge organization. There's people who, you know, do surveillance. There's people who do -- there's interrogators. There's analysts supporting all this. There's operations officers, intelligence officers. There's numerous people dedicated in this process. So it's an entire team effort to make this happen. I happened to have the opportunity to be the end of that chain of events to locate him. But there was numerous other links in that chain prior to that that allowed this to happen.

But, you know, ultimately, what we did is we followed Rahman. You know, in the book, I talk about the first time we followed him. We were all watching it live, and we lost him. And we were all so disheartened, because we had worked so hard to find this man and to get a path to Zarqawi, and we lost him.

AG: How did you lose him?

MA: You know, Baghdad traffic and tall buildings. It's hard to follow people. It's harder than I think we give it credit for. You know, the people who do the surveillance of these people that we're watching and following, this is a very tough skill. And they're very talented, but sometimes the elements just play against you.

AG: So how did you get him?

MA: Well, they picked him up again a couple weeks later, and they followed him. And we knew that there was a tactic in which he would change cars. And when he got into a certain type of vehicle, we knew that that meant he would be going to meet with Zarqawi. And he did that.

And, you know, we were all in a room watching this live on TV. And that car went to a house out in rural Iraq, and we watched him go inside. And we waited, and then the house exploded when some Air Force F-16s dropped bombs on it. And at that point, people cheered, but they weren't sure that Zarqawi was inside. There was no way to be 100 percent sure. But I knew at that time, 100 percent, that Zarqawi was in that house. And it was just a gut feeling that we had been right.

AG: Was there any thought of capturing him as opposed to killing him?

MA: We would have loved to have captured him because of the intelligence that he could have provided, and we had a whole plan in place, obviously. We were prepared to interrogate him. However, the decision was made by our leadership to drop the bombs, because it would have taken some time to get to his location, and he may have escaped. And he escaped once before by running a checkpoint. And so, I think it was a good decision that we had to eliminate him when we had the chance versus risking him getting away again.

AG: I want to go to some larger issues, this very important point that you make that you believe that more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq -- I mean, this is a huge number -- because of torture, because of U.S. practices of torture. Explain what you mean.

MA: Well, you know, when I was in Iraq, we routinely handled foreign fighters, who we would capture. Many of -- several of them had been scheduled to be suicide bombers, and we had captured them before they carried out their missions.

AG: Coming from where?

MA: They came from all over the area. They came from Yemen. They came from northern Africa. They came from Saudi. All over the place. And the No. 1 reason these foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq was routinely because of Abu Ghraib, because of Guantanamo Bay, because of torture practices.

In their eyes, they see us as not living up to the ideals that we have prescribed to. You know, we say that we represent freedom, liberty and justice. But when we torture people, we're not living up to those ideals. And it's a huge incentive for them to join al-Qaida.

You also have to kind of put this in the context of Arab culture and Muslim culture and how important shame, the role of shame is in that culture. And when we torture people, we bring a tremendous amount of shame on them. And so, it is a huge motivator for these people to join al-Qaida and come to Iraq.

AG: So, talk about the pressure, I guess you could say the peer pressure, for you to torture and how you decided to follow the approach you did.

MA: Yeah, you know, torture, it's so narrowly or broadly defined depending on who you're talking to these days. I would say torture, to me, is just unethical behavior. And you can do things that are legal, within the rules, that are unethical. And so, I just know, me, by my gut feeling, based on the principles that I was raised on, you know, that my parents gave to me, that there's things I'll never do, because I know it feels wrong and it is wrong. And so, you know, others felt comfortable either pushing all the way up to the limits and doing things that were unethical, but were legal, or breaking the rules. I felt that was not something I was ever going to do, and I wasn't going to allow my team to do.

I think what's more important at this point is we know that torture has cost us American lives. We know that it's ineffective. And we know that it's wrong, and it's damaged our image. I think, you know, for me as a military officer, my job isn't to identify broken wheels, it's to fix them. And so, the approach that I took and that I talk about in the book is, how do we move forward? You know, we're given this choice of either terrorist attacks or torture. But maybe there's a third way. Maybe there's a better way to do interrogations that has nothing to do with torture. And in the book, I describe the process of coming up with these new ways and how my team, together, we were able to come up with the new methods.

AG: We have to break, but we're going to come back to this discussion and also talk with Scott Horton and who should be held responsible for the torture practices the government has been involved with, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib and beyond. Matthew Alexander is our guest. It's not his name, but it's the name he's chosen. It is the name on his book, How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.

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