Torture Doesn’t Work

Matthew Alexander has a fantastic op-ed in the Washington Post detailing how his team of interrogators used non-torture methods of interrogation to find and kill Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. 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.

I’m not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me — both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn’t work.


Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi. What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogators’ bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules — and often break them. I don’t have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology — one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of “ruses and trickery”). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.


It turns out that my team was right to think that many disgruntled Sunnis could be peeled away from Zarqawi. A year later, Gen. David Petraeus helped boost the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces, cutting violence in the country dramatically.


I know the counter-argument well — that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that’s not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, “I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.”

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there’s the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country 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.

[Emphasis added]

Torture doesn’t work. Information gathered through torture is notoriously unreliable—detainees, when subjected to extensive pain and discomfort, will say whatever they think their captors want to hear just to make it stop. Often that information is inaccurate, causing our military and intelligence agencies to waste precious time and resources acting on false information.

As Alexander points out, torture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The enemies of America are looking for reasons to hate us; they are looking for ways to portray America as a destructive monster that cannot be reasoned with and, thus, must be destroyed. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have been significant recruiting tools for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks because it lets them validate their twisted view of the United States and it helps them proselytize that view to others, turning moderates into radicals and radicals into murderers.

Let’s face it, torture is a cowardly way to conduct a war because it’s easy–it’s easy to demonize prisoners of war as evil murderers who should be treated as such.  It’s easy to abuse and torture prisoners instead of having to take the time to build relationships with them and tease useful information out of them.  Having patience and using tact and skill and cunning are far more difficult than simply strapping everyone you capture to a board and dumping water down their throats.

But the United States of America should not take the easy route, not in this war or any other. Yes, being humane to your enemies is hard, but the United States has never backed down from a challenge. In the end, we should reject torture because it’s against everything our country stands for; we cannot possibly hope to spread American values abroad when we so freely discard those same values whenever it becomes convenient.

Torture doesn’t work. And hopefully, come January 20th, we will be able to end what has been one of the biggest mistakes ever made in American foreign policy.