Matthew Alexander, author of How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. He served for fourteen years in the US Air Force and has conducted special missions in more than thirty countries. He personally conducted more than 300 interrogations and supervised more than a thousand. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his achievements in Iraq. (Note: "Matthew Alexander" is a pseudonym)
We speak with a former special intelligence operations officer who led an interrogations team in Iraq two years ago. His nonviolent interrogation methods led Special Forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. He has written a new book, How to Break a Terrorist: The US 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 wrote it under the pseudonym, Matthew Alexander, for security reasons. He says the US military’s use of torture is responsible for the deaths of thousands of US soldiers by inspiring foreign fighters to kill Americans. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: 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
. It’s 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 US 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-Qaeda 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 writes.
He goes on to say that the number of Americans killed in Iraq because of the US 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," he writes.
Well, the former interrogator has just written a new book. It’s called How to Break a Terrorist: The US 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, Matthew Alexander, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you want to use your name?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: It’s just basic security concerns. You know, al-Qaeda 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yeah, you know, I turned it in in the middle of July, and they’re supposed to do the review within thirty 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 ninety-three reductions made. I used — 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 website. So, eventually they acquiesced on eighty of the ninety-three 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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”?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he is, who he was.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you get information about his whereabouts?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda organization that led to Zarqawi’s location.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean, sympathy, those kind of — using that approach?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Let me just give you one example out of the book. There’s a —- 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 fourteen 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-Qaeda.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “fear and control”?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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 -—
AMY GOODMAN: What are they? How do you inspire fear?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: You can inspire fear by — you can state what are the consequences for someone’s actions.
AMY GOODMAN: You can say you’re going to kill them if they don’t talk?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: You can’t say that you’re going to kill somebody if they don’t talk. What you can say is 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.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk now, moving from fear to what you did with him.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda. We can’t become our enemies in trying to defeat them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, when we come back from break, we’ll find out just how you got the information that led to the whereabouts of Zarqawi. We’re talking to — well, he’s calling himself Matthew Alexander, and that’s the name on this book, but it’s not his real name, How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to — well, he’s calling himself Matthew Alexander. His book is How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. And in a moment, we’ll also be joined by a man who has taken on the issue of torture for years now, Scott Horton, an attorney specializing in international law and human rights, legal affairs contributor to Harper’s magazine. He writes the blog "No Comment." We’ll talk with him in just one minute.
But, Matthew Alexander, focusing on — well, 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, and explain it.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda. 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 Koran, 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. And —-
AMY GOODMAN: He was from Iraq.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: And their feelings about Saddam Hussein?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda in an effort to try and establish some type of Sunni power in Iraq post-Saddam.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did they say about Zarqawi?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, how you extracted the actual information for where Zarqawi was? Bush believed that Zarqawi was responsible for the UN bombing also?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: How long did this take?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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 thirty minutes before he was supposed to get on a helicopter that I was able to convince him to work together with us and the to sell out his cause.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were they going to take him?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: He would have been transferred to another prison, either Abu Ghraib or one of the other prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I can’t say the exact location where I was.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, in that last thirty minutes, well, then he had more time with you?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yeah, you know, I tell in the story, the book, of this last thirty minutes, because, you know, I could hear the clock ticking in my head, and I knew this man could lead us to Zarqawi.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you know that?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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 —-
AMY GOODMAN: Where had he been picked up?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, those last thirty minutes?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Those last thirty 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 thirty 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-Qaeda in Iraq and who was Zarqawi’s right-hand man.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what information did he give up then? Where he was?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: And where was Rahman?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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-Qaeda. So that was his way of legitimizing what he was doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Why was it a risk to say you would help him if he turned in someone important?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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 General Petraeus put in place to reach out to Sunnis and to arm them and to physically work together with them.
AMY GOODMAN: So you find Rahman, you bring him in, or you follow him to where he’s going to meet with Zarqawi?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you lose him?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did you get him?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Was there any thought of capturing him as opposed to killing him?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to some larger issues, this very important point that you make that you believe that more than 3,000 US soldiers were killed in Iraq — I mean, this is a huge number — because of torture, because of US practices of torture. Explain what you mean.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Coming from where?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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 number one 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-Qaeda.
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 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-Qaeda and come to Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: 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.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue with Matthew Alexander, who’s written the book How to Break a Terrorist. We’re also joined by Scott Horton, an attorney who specializes in international law and human rights. He’s written extensively about prisoner abuse in Iraq. He’s the legal affairs contributor to Harper’s magazine and writes the blog “No Comment.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Scott Horton. As you listened to Matthew Alexander lay out his story, it’s certainly a different approach than we’ve gotten out of many of the interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and other places.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, this is obviously a very important book and an important account for many reasons. I think, one, it really demonstrates the integrity and the effectiveness of traditional American military values and techniques. It shows that they work, and they harvest results. The pinpointing of Zarqawi was certainly one of the two or three most important intelligence breakthroughs in the course of this entire war effort. So that’s, I think, a very, very striking point.
But second, our discussion about torture and the introduction of torture, to date, has really focused on events that happened at Abu Ghraib, things that happened at Guantanamo, a prominent memorandum signed by the Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, early on. But I understood instantly, when I heard his account about the pushback he got from the Department of Defense, why. And that’s because his account breaks extremely important new ground. It shows us that there is an entire another channel in which torture developed, and that’s inside of the Special Operations Command.
And by the information I’ve collected, which I think this account confirms, that goes back to the beginning of the conflict, 2002. Special Operations Command set up, operated essentially as a personal fiefdom by Dr. Stephen Cambone, who was the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. And Dr. Cambone was authorizing taking the gloves off, using brutal methods, using torture. And that happened way before the Justice Department got involved, memoranda were written, everything else.
Now, why is that significant? This timeline is very, very important, because it shows that the use of torture and torture techniques comes much earlier than the crafting of the torture memoranda and the Justice Department, the approval process. And that then shows, in turn, that these memoranda were written after the fact in an effort to protect people who had already engaged and implemented this policy. So this is a bombshell, in fact.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Alexander, did you see memoranda? Did you see memos posted about what you could do?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yes. I mean, there was some confusion amongst all interrogators, at some point, about what was allowed and not allowed, because at one point, what was allowed in Guantanamo Bay was not allowed in Iraq. And I had interrogators on my team who had come from Guantanamo Bay, and things that they were allowed or not allowed to do there were allowed or not allowed in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: For example, dogs.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Dogs were not allowed. I know they were allowed at one point at Guantanamo Bay. But by the time I arrived in Iraq in early 2006, dogs were definitely outlawed.
But let me give you another example. Good cop, bad cop, which is —- you know, it’s a technique that we use all the time in the criminal investigative world. It’s an effective techniques. But it wasn’t allowed in Iraq for a long time, although it was allowed as an enhanced interrogation technique in Guantanamo Bay. So this -—
AMY GOODMAN: Why wasn’t it allowed in Iraq? Because they didn’t want the good cop?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: You know, I’ve never gotten a good explanation about why we weren’t allowed to use good cop, bad cop. You know, if it’s torture, then why do we use it in criminal interrogations? It’s not. And I think it more has to do with the fact that there wasn’t a uniform policy from the beginning for all interrogators that applied across all theaters, which there should have been.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, your latest piece in Harper’s magazine, "Justice After Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration" — you think President Bush on down should be prosecuted?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think we have to start with a proper investigation before we reach conclusions about who should be prosecuted and for what crimes. I think there’s simply no question but that serious criminal conduct occurred. And, in fact, we’ve had prosecutions already. I mean, we can count seventeen NCOs, so it’s grunts at the bottom of the military food chain who have been prosecuted for this abuse. There has been no accountability, however, for those who made policy. And I think as a matter of proper administration of criminal justice, it’s the policymakers who should most be held to account.
So the first step is to establish all the facts and establish them carefully and calmly. Who took what decisions when? Security classifications had been wielded very effectively to obscure much of what went on. I think, you know, Matthew’s statements make that clear, and the redactions in his book make that clear. In particular, we know these things were going on inside the Special Operations Command, and security classifications were used to keep that entire tale secret, even secret from congressional oversight committees that attempted to probe into it. So the answer here, I think, is for President-elect Obama to appoint a presidential commission of inquiry, like the Rockefeller Commission, or a hybrid presidential —-
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the Rockefeller Commission?
SCOTT HORTON: The Rockefeller Commission was appointed to look into criminal conduct within the CIA in 1975, the same things that the Church Committee was looking into. Or something like the 9/11 Commission, which is a hybrid congressional-presidential commission, and fill it with eminent persons, give it a clear mandate, and let them get to the bottom of the facts. When the facts are established -— and that’s a process that I’m convinced would take a couple of years —- then we can deal with the question of prosecutions.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, has any US official ever been prosecuted for torture?
SCOTT HORTON: We’ve had military officers who have been prosecuted for torture twice: in 1903 and in 1968. Both of those cases involved waterboarding. And we had camp commanders during the Korean conflict who were court-martialed and punished for abuse of detainees. So the answer is yes, but higher-level policymakers, no. But senior military officials, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Obama officials, advisers to Obama, have said that he is unlikely to go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations. And then there’s the question of President Bush, whether he would issue any kind of pre-emptive pardons.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s an AP report, and the AP report relies on two sources, and I believe one of those sources is John O. Brennan, who was the chief of staff to Mr. Tenet, who would of course be a target of such an investigation, so it’s easy to understand why he would say Obama won’t do it. I’m told -—
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, he was head — he is head of the transition team on intelligence, but has taken himself out of the running.
SCOTT HORTON: I think that’s correct. And I’m told by the Obama transition team that no decision has been taken on this issue, nor is there any particular rush or need to take a decision before January 20th. In fact, I think there’s an important piece they’re waiting to see play out, and that is whether President Bush is going to issue a pre-emptive class-based pardon. And I think there’s a lot of speculation he’ll do it.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?
SCOTT HORTON: The President, before he leaves office, may very well — and if he does it, I think it will be on his last day, on the way out — issue a pardon to all those who were involved in the formation and implementation of his enhanced interrogation program, what he refers to affectionately as "my program."
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is from Reuters. It says that ex-generals will be going to Washington to urge Obama to take action on the torture issue. They’re saying Barack Obama should act, from the moment of his inauguration, to restore US image, battered by allegations of torturing terrorism suspects. They’re planning to press their case with the President-elect’s transition team in Washington, about a dozen retired generals and admirals expected to meet with his team saying that they’re going to offer a list of anti-torture principles, including some that could be implemented immediately. Matthew Alexander, do you know about this?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I’ve heard of this. And there’s not just retired generals; there’s people within the military who have stood up. There’s people who stood up with me in Iraq and said no to torture and that they wouldn’t do or participate in certain things. Colonel Steve Kleinman, who is probably the most senior officer we have in the military who has been trained as an interrogator, has spoken before Congress several times. And his story is also told in Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side, about how he was sent to Iraq to teach interrogators how to use SERE techniques.
AMY GOODMAN: Psychologist — isn’t Kleinman a psychologist?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: SERE techniques are the evasion and resistance techniques that we teach our own troops how to resist against interrogations. And he was sent to Iraq and told to teach interrogators how to use these as torture weapons, and he refused to do so. So the change, I think, has come from people within the military who have stood up and said, “No, this is against American principles.”
AMY GOODMAN: Were you subjected to SERE techniques? I mean, did you go through that training?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I did go through SERE training. And I remember this moment I’ll never forget at the end of SERE training.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I was in Spokane, Washington. It was very cold. It was the first week of February, subzero temperatures. And it’s very challenging training. You know, it’s a prisoner of war environment. And at the end of the training, I remember, we stood in formation, and we were very exhausted, and they played the national anthem. And afterwards, an instructor gave a speech, and he told us about how some American prisoners of war in Korea had been tortured to death and refused to give up information. And I remember taking great pride in the fact that our country did not torture, that we did not resort to such practices. And that’s why I felt such an obligation to write this book and to get the word out that we’ve got to return to that. We’ve got to return to a place where we do not conduct torture in any organization within our government.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of torture has raged in the association of psychologists, the American Psychological Association, psychologist participation. Did you work with psychologists?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: We had psychologists. They did not advise on the tactics or techniques that we should be using for interrogation. They actually were there for the safety of the detainees, to ensure that if someone — one of the detainees started to experience problems mentally, that we could identify that and get them the appropriate help.
AMY GOODMAN: Who do you believe should be held accountable?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I can’t make judgments about accountability. I mean, I’m a soldier, and ultimately my job is to fix and make better our processes that help us defend our nation. You know, the accountability finger for torture, I think, you know, it is a leadership issue. I think we set examples from the top down, and our troops follow those. But at the same time, I think all the troops do have training to know what’s right and wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think prosecution of those who crossed the line would help people understand what’s right and wrong?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I would say that if it was an interrogator who had crossed the line, they certainly would be prosecuted.
AMY GOODMAN: If it was an official?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: If they crossed the line and broke the law, yes, I think they should be held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that should go right on up to President Bush?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I think it should go to anybody who breaks the law. I don’t think the law — I think the history of the United States has proven, you know, that we impeach and try anybody who breaks the law. It’s not really for me to decide who has broken the law or who hasn’t. What I know is that we’ve got to change the system to do a better job of interrogating.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about Eric Holder, the man President-elect Barack Obama has asked to be Attorney General. If confirmed, he would become the first African American to lead the Justice Department. Holder served as Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration and as US attorney for the District of Columbia. He served as an adviser to Obama’s campaign on legal issues and served on his vice-presidential selection team. This is some of what Eric Holder had to say Monday after Obama officially introduced him as his pick for Attorney General.
ERIC HOLDER: I also look forward to working with the men and women of the Department of Justice to revitalize the department’s efforts in those areas where the department has unique capabilities and responsibilities in keeping our people safe and ensuring fairness and in protecting our environment. This president-elect and the team you see before you are prepared to meet the challenges that we will confront. But from my experience at the Department of Justice, I know that we cannot be successful if we act alone.
We must never forget that in many ways those in state and local law enforcement are our first line of detection and protection against those from foreign shores who would do us harm. We will need to interact with our state and local partners in new innovative ways to help them solve the other issues that they confront on a daily basis. National security concerns are not defined only by the challenges created by terrorists abroad, but also by criminals in our midst, whether they be criminals located on the street or in a board room.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, the pick of Eric Holder as Attorney General and what he’s just said?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, of course, he’s inheriting a Justice Department that is at its all-time low point in public esteem, so he will have an immense job ahead of him. He had a reputation while he worked at the Justice Department as a person who wanted to keep out of politics and keep out of the headlines, do his job, follow the book, follow the rules. I think he was very, very well-regarded by his colleagues at the Justice Department. And — but, of course, he brings a little bit of negative baggage, particularly in connection with the pardon of Marc Rich. I’m sure he’s going to get embarrassing questions about that.
AMY GOODMAN: And Marc Rich was the man that President Clinton pardoned.
SCOTT HORTON: After receiving campaign support from the Rich family.
AMY GOODMAN: And Eric Holder was in charge at the time in vetting the pardons?
SCOTT HORTON: That’s right. And I think it was revealed in the last forty-eight hours that his role was considerably greater than the public knew previously.
Also, in private practice, he was involved with Chiquita Banana and some dealings in Latin America that I think are a little bit unsavory.
AMY GOODMAN: Colombia.
SCOTT HORTON: But — that’s right. But I think, you know, private attorneys don’t always get to pick all their clients. So I think he’ll be forgiven on that.
On these issues relating to torture and Guantanamo, 2002, he was supportive of the administration’s position on establishing Guantanamo, but within two to three years, he turned quite critical of it and gave a speech at the American Constitution Society, which I personally witnessed, in which he spoke in extraordinarily impassioned tones about the deterioration of our legal regime and our respect for the rule of law that Guantanamo had come to represent. So I think he stands exactly where Barack Obama stands on those issues, and I think — I have no doubt about his commitment to shut down Guantanamo and to bring an end to the torture policies. I think he’s really clear on all of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Unlike Barack Obama, Eric Holder is opposed to the death penalty. What influence do you think that would have?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the Attorney General gives recommendations in connection with clemency and pardons, and I think we can see some of that. I think the Bush administration had ratcheted up — had taken an extremely aggressive position on the administration of the death penalty, had stripped away discretion from US attorneys on it. In fact, we have one US attorney in Arizona removed because of his objection to policy positions. I expect to see that reversed now.
AMY GOODMAN: He was also part of the legal team that worked to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT Act.
SCOTT HORTON: That’s correct. And I think that — but I think there he showed, you know, traditional law enforcement community biases for a broader mandate. Eric Holder is, I think, closer to the civil libertarians than any of the Bush attorneys general, but he’s not a civil libertarian by any stretch of the imagination.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Matthew Alexander, his book, just out this week, would have been out earlier — he had trouble getting it out of the Pentagon, the vetting process — How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. And Scott Horton, his latest piece in Harper’s is called "Justice After Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration."
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