Argument: Winning trust of prisoners is more effective than harsh interrogations

Issue Report: Enhanced interrogation techniques


Dina Temple-Raston. “Interrogation Results Prompt Scrutiny Of Methods”. NPR. April 30, 2009 – Matthew Alexander is an advocate of a different kind of interrogation — one that builds rapport, like the kind of technique you see on television cop shows. Alexander was a military interrogator in Iraq and doesn’t see the need for rough questioning.

“One of my best techniques for building rapport was to bring into the interrogation booth a copy, my copy, of the Koran and to recite a verse out of it or to ask questions about Islam,” he said.

It is important to know that Matthew Alexander wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill military interrogator. He was in charge of an interrogation team working on one of the most important counterterrorism operations of the war: the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man in charge of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Learning From Challenges

Alexander and his team arrived in Iraq in March 2006 — well after the abuses at Abu Ghraib forced the military to reform its interrogation process. By the time Alexander’s team was on the ground, a military task force had been searching for Zarqawi for three years. But it took Alexander’s team just two months of questioning detainees to get one of them to reveal the location of Zarqawi’s safe house. Based on that information, the al-Qaida leader was killed in a military operation in June 2006.

“I know on the chase to Zarqawi we had several people during that chase who didn’t talk,” Alexander says. “But that was OK. We used the opportunities with detainees we couldn’t convince to cooperate to become better interrogators. And it was those skills we developed in those interrogations that allowed us to break the detainees who led us to Zarqawi.”

Alexander’s experience in Iraq is particularly instructive in the context of the current debate over whether harsh interrogation techniques work. That’s because Alexander and his team followed international standards for questioning and didn’t use any of the rough techniques the CIA adopted. And yet, without waterboarding or stress positions, Alexander says, he not only helped track down al-Qaida’s top man in Iraq but also managed to give the military better information.

“When you use coercion, a detainee might tell you the location of a house, but if you use cooperation they will tell you if the house is booby-trapped, and that’s a very important difference,” says Alexander. He says his success in Iraq proves that torture isn’t necessary to break a terrorist.