Interrogating Humanely- An Interview with former interrogator Matt Alexander

Interrogating Humanely- An Interview with former interrogator Matt Alexander - top government contractors - best government contracting event
Matthew Alexander
Matthew Alexander

Following incidents at Abu Ghraib, rendition claims and reports of US ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, the subject of US interrogation techniques and tactics has come to the forefront in recent years. President Obama has promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the focal point of much criticism regarding US interrogation methods. Matthew Alexander, a former Air Force officer who helped conduct interrogations as part of a special operations task force responsible for finding and eliminating Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. He has since written a book on his experiences as an interrogator who ‘used brains, not brutality, to take down the deadliest man in Iraq.’ ExecutiveBiz recently had the opportunity to ask Alexander some questions about his experiences in Iraq and his views on the challenges of conducting interrogations.

ExecutiveBiz:  Can you briefly tell us your background in the military and how you got to where you are today?

Matt Alexander:  I joined the Air Force after college.  I was a ROTC graduate.  For the first six years I was a pilot and spent time flying special operation helicopters.  I was in Bosnia and Kosovo and then I went back to graduate school and following that I became a Special Agent for an organization called the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, operating in Latin America, Saudi Arabia at the start of the Iraq War, and Korea.  I then volunteered to go to Iraq and was selected by the Air Force to support the Army as an Interrogator, attached to a special operations task force.  The task force was specifically charged with finding and eliminating Abu Musab Al Zarqawi who was the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  We achieved that.  I then came back and about a year later I wrote a book about my experiences and since then I have been speaking and writing.

ExecutiveBiz:  What is the name of your book and what has been the reaction to it?

Matt Alexander:  My book is called How to Break a Terrorist.  The reaction has been very positive from fellow interrogators and military veterans.  The negative reactions have more to do with my opinions that we shouldn“™t use torture, ever.  I“™m against torture or even abuse in the course of interrogations.  What I have viewed as a very American opinion some people have viewed as a left opinion.  I took a fairly strong stance on that issue and I“™m fairly critical of the leadership decisions that were made in the military that allowed enhanced interrogation techniques to be used which were contrary to  our training and traditions.

ExecutiveBiz:  It sounds like you are a student of history.  Can you give us a sense of why these things three or four years ago made sense to people and your reflection upon that?

Matt Alexander:  I“™ve been doing a lot of research on military interrogators.  In World War II there were two fairly famous interrogators both of whom used non-coercive techniques extremely effectively against Japanese prisoners.  There are also World War II soldierswho interrogated German high level captures and were very successful in using non-coercive techniques.  I guess my opinion about the leadership failure is that I think senior military leaders and senior civilian leaders failed to separate their emotions from their professional duties.  After 9/11, I think we all had the same reaction that we felt very passionately about ensuring that justice was delivered, but I think there wasn“™t that mature, professional leadership aspect to the decisions that were made that would separate those emotions from our traditions and our principles.  I think before 9/11 we would never have considered abusing prisoners regardless of the threat.

ExecutiveBiz:  How do you define torture?

Matt Alexander:  My philosophy is this:  I don“™t need a rule book to tell me what torture is.  I know what it is from the way I was raised and the values that I was given, but the standard isn“™t torture.  The standard is humane treatment and that“™s the standard that we“™ve followed at least since 1949 with the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, which were written into Army regulations.  The rule that I always used as an interrogator and leading interrogations when issues would come up, because there are gray areas, is the golden rule ““ if this is being used against one of my troops would I consider it to be that minimum level of humane treatment.  If it is not then I am not going to use it.  That“™s the rule that I followed and that my team followed.

ExecutiveBiz:  How do you think classifying people as unlawful enemy combatants as opposed to POWs influenced the movement towards “˜enhanced interrogations“™ and the use of torture?

Matt Alexander:  Every year, every member of the military has to take law of armed conflict training and in that training we go over this issue.  One of the things that they always warn us about is taking actions that would dehumanize the prisoners.  That includes name calling and classifying people in ways that make them appear to be non- human because they realize from studies and experience that if you dehumanize people it makes it much easier to torture and abuse them.  I don“™t care what someone“™s status is ““ the legal techniques work regardless of their status.  The techniques that I“™m going to use are the time proven relationship building techniques that have been used successfully throughout our history both by law enforcement and the military.  What I“™m also going to do and what we did that was unique to my team is that we combined the law enforcement techniques with the intelligence interrogation approaches of the Army Field Manual.  We tailored that for the culture; very specifically to Arab and Muslim culture.

ExecutiveBiz:  In terms of linguistic barriers in interrogations, did you deploy contract linguists?

Matt Alexander:  We used contract interpreters and I“™m probably the minority voice on this point and it goes well against the advice of very renowned interrogators ““ I don“™t think we should spend resources to train our interrogators in Arabic.  I had Arabic speaking interrogators on my team that could not interrogate in Arabic because there are a variety of dialects just within Iraq.  The other part is that interrogation is a very nuanced field and details are extremely important.  If you are not 100% fluent you can miss very important details and that“™s not my opinion, that“™s the opinion of people that I know who are Arabic speakers that tried to interrogate in Arabic.  Also, a contract interpreter who is well trained and who is from the same area as the detainees is a cultural encyclopedia inside the interrogation booth.  They can catch things that you never will regardless of how smart you are about culture.  The other thing is right now we are at war in the Middle East and Central Asia so we can train people in Dari, Pashto and Arabic, but ten years from now we could be at war in a totally different place and those language skills would go right down the drain.

ExecutiveBiz:  Was there ever concern from you about your translators maybe withholding information or translating things differently?

Matt Alexander:  I had one issue like that and it was easily solved.  You just remotely monitor the interrogation with another interpreter who is trusted or one of your interrogators who is trained in the language.  I only had one incident but it was never an instance of collaboration on the part of the interpreters with the detainees because all of our detainees were Sunnis and our interpreters were Shia.  So just the opposite was true in that the views of our interpreters in some ways could be a little prejudiced against the detainees.  You had to be aware of that bias.  They might be more likely to see guilt or to assume somebody“™s level of involvement just because they are advocates for the Shia cause and against the Sunnis we were fighting.

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