US military interrogator decries torture -- worse than useless

Democracy Now! interviews 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. Alexander is a former US military interrogator who deplores the use of torture in interrogation as ineffective at extracting intelligence -- and he argues that it's very effective at outraging potential enemies and turning them into murderous extremists.
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.

US Interrogator in Iraq Says Torture Policy Has Led to Deaths of Thousands of American Soldiers, How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq on Amazon (Thanks, Denver Jewelry Guy!)



  1. Wow, this is some reassuring step towards believing that humanity might actually advance someday. I mean, talk before you hit? – that’s revolutionary!

    It only remains to be seen who will get more public support: the author of this book, or 24’s Jack Bauer…?

    > So many commas…

    It’s from the rush transcript of his live interview, not his book.

  3. The thing about torture.. if you think this guy in front of you has IEDs somewhere, and you can do anything to get him to admit that.. well, there’s a good chance he’ll confess. And confess to anything else you want. Just so you’ll stop terrorising him.

    Torture assumes that every person you interogate is in someway guilty, or has knowledge of criminal acts.

    It’s always seemed deeply flawed for that reason. Hopefully this dodgy, unethical freight train has had the brakes pulled on it for long enough to start slowing down, if not stop altogether.

    How many serving military interrogators feel the same way as Mr Alexander?

    > It only remains to be seen who will get more public
    > support: the author of this book, or 24’s Jack Bauer…?

    Yeah, I don’t think there will ever be a great TV show that reflects the reality of truly effective intelligence work like Matthew and many others perform. Interrogation techniques and general intelligence gathering that actually works needs some amount of obsfucation in order for it to continue to be as effective. (At the same time, it’s so powerful, effective and ethical you can be fairly transparent about the premises of the processes)

    A lot of lower ranking special forces guys will say torture and intimidation works (which sometimes does, actually), but they often have no follow up (and only WANT to believe it worked) and aren’t looking at the bigger picture down the road as folks like Matthew do.

    Also showing how much the Bush administration has demoralized American intelligence gatherers (many of which risk their fucking lives for this country in various ways) also probably isn’t going to get a huge American viewership. (Sadly, it would probably do well in Europe though…)

    “Matthew” has to leave out a lot of various details in order to protect national security and even has to hide his real name so his family isn’t killed. He doesn’t give away any juicy classified info in his book and the powers that be even stopped him from including info that was readily accessible in non-classified field manuals and even on public military websites. The powers that be aren’t protecting the country by censoring Matthew, they are selfishly only protecting themselves from much needed criticism that would benefit us all.

    On the udder hand, a bullshit show like “24” can throw in all kinds of exciting testosterone-filled bullshit techniques in order to keep it action-packed and keep those sexy ratings higher. America! Fuck Yeah!! Not to mention, perhaps influence some of the American sheep out there and git em’ all fired up and help let criminals like the Bush admin get away with…. lots of murder, tons of money and everlasting mayhem. Did I mention money?

    Who will sponsor the Matthew Alexander TV show? General Electric?

  5. Torturing people at your mercy, in prison.
    No wonder Bush and the USA have lost the “war on terror”.
    There will be no prosecutions due to American doemetic political reasons.
    Feel like a banana republic yet?
    Funny how the US Gov has no difficulty starting a War but can never seem to end one. Oh well the “new” “changed” Republican SecDef will keep up the good fight no doubt. If you increase Defense spending and reduce civil liberties, natch.

  6. I’m surprised there’s no link to his recent WaPo opinion bit: ( )

    It’s all common sense, you’d think. But it’s also common sense to realize that occupying a Middle-Eastern nation that had nothing to do with 9/11 would generate more terrorists.

    It’s pretty sad how the Neocons so easily removed simple, common-sense, “put yourself in the other guy’s shoes” rationality from US foreign policy and replaced it with a jingoistic Hollywood action-movie world of moral absolutes.


    Maybe the Obama Admin will be like Dr. Strangelove where a calm, rational President surrounds himself with raging warhawks, but generally keeps them at bay and fights with them all the time but pulls rank and makes them SD&STFU when they get too hawky.

    Hmmm… maybe that wasn’t a good comparison considering the ending of Dr. Strangelove… :/

  8. Believe it or not, I have hope…I’m an irredeemably optimistic guy. But once people tip their hands, I call them as I see them. People around Bush wanted to torture people….so one should draw the obvious conclusion about those people.
    I have also been on the streets enough to know that “hope” is a charm….

  9. Gotta wonder who a book like this is written for, though– I’m getting a little laugh imagining this becoming some boss’s new favorite– “we’re going to put these steps into effect around the office!” LOL

  10. If you believe that torture works you must also believe in witches. After all, most of the women in the Salem witch trials confessed under torture to being witches. Therefore, if torture works, withes are real.

  11. If you read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, he points out that after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the biggest break in the case came from the FBI’s interrogation of one suspect using completely ethical methods: they used an Arabic speaker with knowledge of the Koran, who pointed out to the prisoner the inconsistencies of killing innocent people and the actual teachings in the book. The prisoner ends up turning on the Al-Qaeda and gave the FBI some of its best leads. Torture renders all information you receive as ultimately useless. The CIA tortured Abu Zubaydah and ran all over the world based on the supposed plots beaten out of him. Only to find out that he was certifiably insane. Torture anyone enough and they will tell you anything you want to hear, none of it will prove to be the truth.

    Or as Brian Dobsky from ‘Monkey Dust’ said: “Only I never done it. I had to say I done it to get me fingernails back.”

  12. Could it be that torture was adopted to inflame the “enemy” so as to guarantee further astronomical mil budgets?
    Seems to be its only effect.

  13. Bad intel is worse than no intel, because if you’re torturing people to the point of them telling you what you want to hear, you’re going to be sending out missions, making decisions, apportioning resources based on your most sincere wishes and fears, not objective truth.

  14. Justin @ # 4 – Most of them feel that way. It’s the CIA interrogators who used torture for the most part. Before Bush had it re-written, the Army interrogation manual and it’s public rules prohibited torture, including waterboarding and any form of fake execution.

  15. I’m getting this strange feeling that it was those who were carrying most of the secrets who were ultimately responsible for the decision to cross that ethical threshold.
    They could simply not imagine someone giving up their secrets under any other circumstance, giving the precarious situation they found themselves in on a day to day basis.

    One could even call it misguided empathy.

  16. Cowicide @6: I don’t know how accurate it was, but Homicide: Life on the Streets was very compelling in its depiction of police officers using all manner of non-physical methods to persuade suspects to confess.

    There was the evidence gathering, then the suspect or suspects would be in “The Box”, the interview room, and Pembleton or Munch or someone would… interview the suspect. Sometimes it would be questioning until the suspect got themselves in a logical hole they couldn’t explain themselves out of, sometimes it would be “good cop/bad cop” tag-teaming, sometimes social or emotional pressure, sometimes it would be attempting to bond with the suspect to get them to the point where they just said, “Yeah, I did it.”

    I always thought a good intelligence gathering interview would be like that, with the difference that you wouldn’t necessarily be getting the interviewee to confess anything per se, just adding what he says to your data, seeing where it fits, what it illuminates, what it obscures.

  17. The choice of torture has nothing to do with its effectiveness and everything to do with the psychology of the people who want to use it.

  18. Well the best intelligence interrogation would always be the one where the interviewee is unaware of the interview, at all.
    That’s axiomatic, almost.
    Historically, torture has almost exclusively been used as a “political tool” to frighten many many others not being tortured to modify their behavior.
    Any different this time?

  19. The point is, people need intelligence and rationality to interview terrorists. Intelligence and rationality have both been lacking from the Bush administration.

  20. Torture is one of those human atrocities that will always be a factor. It’s like prohibition on alcohol, making it illegal didn’t stop people from using it. It just made everyone criminals.

    The way national security works, by the time you find out about it happening, it is too late to prevent it. However, when someone breaks the law, they should be brought up on charges, regardless of the outcome of the lawbreaking. Is the United States a ruled by laws, or not?

    That said, I think it is important that military and intelligence professionals know that there are more effective ways of extracting data from enemies than torture.

    Here is a unlikely scenario, and I am not sure how I would act, but I am curious how BoingBoing readers would:

    You are in a barricaded building with a time bomb with a few friends and family members. No way in, and too long to get out. You caught the guy who set it and have him strapped to a chair. He knows how to stop the bomb, but is suicidal anyway and doesn’t care that he is going to die. He just doesn’t like your family and wants to go out with a bang. Do you beat the crap out of him until he tells you how to dismantle the bomb, or do you just go with the blow?

    I have to say, I think I would start swinging away.

  21. You are in a barricaded building with a time bomb with a few friends and family members. No way in, and too long to get out. You caught the guy who set it and have him strapped to a chair. He knows how to stop the bomb, but is suicidal anyway and doesn’t care that he is going to die. He just doesn’t like your family and wants to go out with a bang. Do you beat the crap out of him until he tells you how to dismantle the bomb, or do you just go with the blow?

    He’s suicidal so why wouldn’t he just give a set of wrong instructions so you’d go away and get yourself blown up?

    I mean you know he hates you so why wouldn’t he try and get you killed as well?

    He’s nasty enough to rig a bomb but gosh darn it he has an honest face? Your fists are packed with sodium pentothol? You’ve got built in lie detector goggles?

    Seriously this scenario comes up every time and it’s just as stupid every time.

  22. “Matthew Alexander” was also interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today (audio will be up around 6:00 PM Eastern). He strikes me as someone who should be listened to–and I hope that voices like his will be heard in the Pentagon and the Obama administration.

    Regarding the “ticking bomb” scenario mentioned by KarlFrankJr @24 (talk about a well-numbered coincidence!), Alexander notes that virtually every day in Iraq presented situations where immediate intelligence could have prevented deaths, but torture would have been of little to no use in quickly getting useful information. Most of what I’ve read suggests that using torture to defuse a time bomb works extremely well in movies, but not so well in reality. See also the discussions of the “ticking bomb” scenario at wikipedia and at the Association for the Prevention of Torture.

  23. One aspect of the torture debate that is almost always overlooked is what it does to the psyche of the perpetrator as well as the victim. What kind of human being can go on to live anything resembling a normal life after seeing that kind of darkness within his own soul?

  24. I had an idea, and sent it a letter to a few groups like Amnesty International, but no one did anything with it. Take groups and set them up in tourist locations all over the country. These groups will have a waterboarding device set up and offer to waterboard volunteers. The groups would hype up how the government says it isn’t torture, and repeat quotes about how it isn’t so bad. You’ll wind up loads of volunteers showing how macho they are. You will also end up with loads of people who see that it is torture and the word will spread.

  25. If the intention is to obtain information torture does work for oppressors, in a situation where the question is where is your weapons cache/ radio transmitter, or other verifiable information; and whether because of a succesful invasion or coup you are in control of a subject population.

    The cell system developed by french resistance groups in the second world war came about as a result of the successful use of torture.

    If your prisoner gives you incorrect information, you have all the time in the world to search houses, kill innocent people at random etc.
    If he’s just a passerby you’ve arrested by mistake, you don’t care. You’re in control, your aim is total control.

    As @22 pointed out it’s a plus for you anyway because it creates terror in your (you hope) subject population.

    Whether or not the US, Britain, Denmark and the rest of the ‘coalition of the willing’ are oppressors, the imagined ‘other’ regions of the world are not a subject population.

    So no control, no verifiability, and not even any terror.

    As for the nice thoughtful interrogator and his book ……

  26. #31 POSTED BY PSEUDONYM , DECEMBER 4, 2008 4:01 PM
    > I had an idea, and sent it a letter to a
    > few groups like Amnesty International…

    Waterboarding tourists would probably cost quite a bit in insurance, don’t you think? Amnesty Int. doesn’t have the same kind of budget as the military-industrial complex, so I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

    But, they did do this:

  27. Thanks for this. I’ve also said that torture was the easy way out. I’ll have to check out Alexander’s book for the (doubtless) better answer.

  28. @ Alex_M #8 I did post that very link 3 postings up.

    Anyroads the whole Iraq thing had me puzzled for a bit I mean it was obviously about oil , yet at the same time Bush started pushing for alternative energy sources to supplant it. Why would he do that once he’d grabbed one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world?

    Just recently I happened to see the comedian Robert Newman’s History Of Oil. It raises a lot of very interesting points but it was when he talked about “peak oil” (the point where demand starts to outstrip remaining oil reserves) and suddenly everything clicked into place.

  29. @29- It’s important to note that not all brains work the same, and not all people subscribe to the same moral systems. In short, causing pain to someone else is not traumatic for some people.

  30. A_User @ #37, yeah you beat me to it fair and square. Your comment hadn’t popped up yet when I wrote mine.

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