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Former Military Interrogator Matthew Alexander: Despite GOP Claims, “Immoral” Torture “Slowed Down” Effort to Find Osama bin Laden

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The death of Osama bin Laden has sparked a debate over whether torture of suspects held at places such as the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay helped track down and kill the al-Qaeda leader. Some claim the mission vindicated controversial Bush policies on harsh interrogation techniques. We speak with Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator in Iraq. “The laying of the groundwork, if you will, of these [Bush-era] techniques, I believe wholeheartedly, slowed us down on the road towards Osama bin Laden and numerous other members of al-Qaeda,” Alexander says. “I’m convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 12, 2011A Debate on Human Rights Watch’s Call for Bush Administration Officials to be Tried for Torture
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The death of Osama bin Laden has sparked a debate over whether torture of suspects held at places like Guantánamo helped track down and kill the al-Qaeda leader. As intelligence officials revealed more about the trail of evidence that led to disclosing bin Laden’s location, some have claimed the mission vindicated controversial Bush policies on harsh interrogation techniques. Congressman Steve King, a Republican of Iowa, tweeted on Monday, “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?”

Meanwhile, New York Congressman Peter King, also the chair of the Homeland Security Committee, said bin Laden would not have been caught without the use of torture.

REP. PETER KING: Osama bin Laden would not have been captured and killed if it were not for the initial information we got from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after he was waterboarded.

AMY GOODMAN: That was New York Republican Congressman Peter King talking to CBS. Karl Rove, former adviser to President George Bush, said, “I think the tools that President Bush put into place — GITMO, rendition, enhanced interrogation, the vast effort to collect and collate this information — obviously served his successor quite well.” The Obama administration has denied such techniques were central to finding bin Laden.

REPORTER: Can you say if there’s been any change in President Obama’s opposition to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: No change whatsoever.

REPORTER: Were any results of such techniques used in helping to track down bin Laden?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Mark, the fact is that no single piece of information led to the successful mission that occurred on Sunday. And multiple detainees provided insights into the networks of people who might have been close to bin Laden, but reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years in the intelligence community. And it’s simply strange credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered in — eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday. That’s just not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

To discuss the issue, we go to Los Angeles to talk to Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq, leading to the capture of numerous al-Qaeda leaders. His latest book is called Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist. He’s currently a fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.

Matthew Alexander, welcome to Democracy Now! What do you make of this debate that is raging right now about torture and its effectiveness?

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Good morning, Amy.

The debate is skewed at this point. And one reason why is because we don’t know all the details, and secondly, because a lot is being left out of the conversation. And let me talk a little bit about that. One of the things that people aren’t talking about is the fact that one of the people that was confronted with this information that bin Laden had a courier is Sheikh al-Libi, who was held in a CIA secret prison and was tortured and who gave his CIA interrogators the name of the courier as being Maulawi Jan. And the CIA chased down that information and found out that person didn’t exist, that al-Libi had lied. And nobody is talking about the fact that al-Libi caused us to waste resources and time by chasing a false lead because he was tortured.

The other thing that’s being left out of this conversation is the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed certainly knew the real name of the courier, whose nom de guerre or nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had to have known his real name or at least how to find him, a location that we might look, but he never gave up that information. And so, what we’re seeing is that waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques, just like professional interrogators have been saying for years, always result in either limited information, false information or no information.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, what’s happening now is being used by many to justify torture.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: That’s correct. And, you know, when you look at the use of waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques in the case of the trail of evidence that leads to Osama bin Laden, what you find is, time and time again, it slows down the chase. In 2003, when we — or '02, when we have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we have the person most likely to be able to lead us to bin Laden, and yet we don't get to him until 2011. You know, by any interrogation standard, eight years is a long time to not get information from people, and that’s probably directly related to the fact that he was waterboarded 183 times.

The other piece of the story that we don’t know yet is we don’t know how the CIA learned the real family name of the courier, who again, his nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. And we don’t know how the CIA got his real family name, which really was the key piece of information that led us to be able to monitor phone calls and emails and discover his first name, his full name, which led to us finding him and then him leading us to the compound. So, until we have that information, which we don’t even know if it came from interrogations or if it came from a source, then we really don’t have a complete picture of how we got to bin Laden.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Alexander, actually, that is a pseudonym, is that right? You prefer not to use your actual name?

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experiences in Iraq, specifically what you did. You were involved in well over a thousand interrogations.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I was a senior interrogator in charge of an interrogation team. I conducted quite a few interrogations myself, over 300. I went out with the raid teams on these kill-or-capture missions to try and kill or capture, you know, leaders of al-Qaeda specifically. The time I was on the team, we were hunting a man named Zafar, who was in charge of the suicide bombing operations in northern Iraq.

And what I found is a couple things, Amy. The first is that non-coercive techniques, time and time again, proved extremely effective against al-Qaeda, especially techniques that came from law enforcement that were based on rapport building.

Secondly, what I found is that when I first got on the raid team, the Army — probably over half the houses we raided in Iraq were the wrong house, because we were acting on very small intelligence tips that we didn’t have time to flesh out and get the detailed information that we needed to ensure we’re going to the right house. And I accept that that’s a major challenge when you’re conducting counterinsurgency. The problem I had on the team, as I describe in my book, is that we weren’t paying compensation or issuing apologies to the head of households when we raided these wrong houses. And that was something I was able to convince our commander to change, because I believed very strongly that if we didn’t do that, we were going to end up creating more enemies than we were taking off the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the discussions you had, as an interrogator yourself, with those who believed that torture was the way to get information, and your own feelings about the most effective way to get information from a prisoner.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: My argument is pretty simple, Amy. I don’t torture because it doesn’t work. I don’t torture, because it’s immoral, and it’s against the law, and it’s inconsistent with my oath of office, in which I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. And it’s also inconsistent with American principles. So, my primary argument against torture is one of morality, not one of efficacy.

You know, if torture did work and we could say it worked 100 percent of the time, I still wouldn’t use it. The U.S. Army Infantry, when it goes out into battle and it faces resistance, it doesn’t come back and ask for the permission to use chemical weapons. I mean, chemical weapons are extremely effective — we could say almost 100 percent effective. And yet, we don’t use them. But we make this — carve out this special space for interrogators and say that, well, they’re different, so they can violate the laws of war if they face obstacles.

And that’s an insult to American interrogators, who are more than capable of defeating our enemies and al-Qaeda in the battle of wits in the interrogation room. And American interrogators have proven this time and time again, from World War II through Vietnam, through Panama, through the First Gulf War. And let’s go back to the successes of American interrogators. You know, American interrogators found Saddam Hussein without using torture. We found and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda Iraq, which helped turn the Iraq war, without using torture. And numerous other leaders that we have found and captured — another guy named Zafar, that I describe in my book — all these successes have come without the use of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that the use of torture was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yes. When I was in Iraq, I oversaw the interrogations of foreign fighters. And those foreign fighters, the majority of them, said, time and time again, the reason they had come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of detainees at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. And this is not my opinion. The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. And they were briefed, every interrogator who arrived there, that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

And remember, these foreign fighters that came to Iraq, they made up 90 percent of the suicide bombers. They killed hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers. And so, this policy of torture and abuse did not make America safer. What it did was it caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands of American soldiers who are now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. So, this policy has been counterproductive in so many ways.

And one thing you’ll never hear the torture supporters talk about, Amy, is the long-term negative consequences of torture. They won’t talk about the fact that al-Qaeda uses it to recruit. They won’t talk about the fact that future Americans are going to be subjected to the same techniques by future enemies using our own actions as justification. They’re not going to talk about the fact that it makes detainees more resistant to interrogations as soon as they walked in the interrogation room, because they see us all as torturers. So they’re not going to talk about all these long-term negative consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Alexander, you raise an interesting point when you talk about the morality of torture. You compare it to when the U.S. infantry gets bogged down in a battle.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yeah, and it just — this is one of the things that surprised me most about the conversation, is this lack of faith in interrogators, that by some default, American interrogators aren’t good enough, and so we need these special tools to be able to break the law, to be able to do something that’s extremely immoral and forfeit the high ground, as one of my friends likes to say, so that we can do our jobs. And that’s an insult to us. Professional interrogators take that as a slap in the face. Any good interrogator who’s skilled in his profession understands the culture of the people he’s interrogating, respects that culture, uses it to his advantage by respecting it, knows that they don’t need torture to accomplish their mission. And this has been repeated time and time again. We don’t give exceptions to other career fields to break the law simply because their job is difficult. And interrogators don’t need those exceptions, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Matthew Alexander, summarize, as you watch this conversation unfold, the fierce defense of torture by Bush administration officials now coming on television, saying it was President Bush that laid the groundwork, or his administration, and the interrogation techniques, to finding Osama bin Laden.

MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Well, the laying of the groundwork, if you will, of these techniques basically, I believe wholeheartedly, slowed us down on the road towards Osama bin Laden and numerous other members of al-Qaeda, not just bin Laden. And I’m convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse.

And one of the things that also gets lost in this conversation, Amy, is: what’s our ultimate national security goal here? It’s not to stop terrorist attacks. We cannot defeat al-Qaeda, we cannot defeat violent extremism, by stopping terrorist attacks. That’s an endless game of hide-and-go-seek. What we have to do is stop terrorist recruitment. That’s the only way to put an end to al-Qaeda, is when they can no longer recruit fresh fighters. That’s been the downfall of numerous terrorist organizations. And when our policies help our enemies to recruit, we end up losing in the long run. So, this policy of torture and abuse, what it did is it helped al-Qaeda recruit, it lowered our moral standing in the world, it sacrificed our principles, and ultimately it cost us more time to find bin Laden, and it will take us longer to defeat violent extremism.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator in Iraq, conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations. His latest book is called Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist. He’s a fellow at the UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.

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