The Talking Dog

March 22, 2010, TD Blog Interview with Matthew Alexander

Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) spent fourteen years in the U.S. Air Force and is now part of the U.S. Air Force Reserves. He has personally conducted more than 300 interrogations in Iraq and supervised more than 1,000. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his achievement in Iraq, has two advanced degrees, and speaks three languages. When he's not chasing the world's most wanted, he goes surfing.He is the co-author of "How to Break A Terroristt: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq ," and is credited with having conducted the military interrogations that led directly to the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musad al Zarqawi. On March 22, 2010, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Alexander by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 Sept. 2001?

Matthew Alexander: I was at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Academy. I was in my last week of training prior to graduation. My flight was outside in a training area conducting simulated law enforcement raids on makeshift houses. A delivery truck drove by and the driver yelled out that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Our instructor said that the driver smoked too much pot, but the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I asked that we make a phone call. Shortly thereafter we looked to the west and saw the black smoke rising from the Pentagon, where I had been assigned five months prior.

The Talking Dog:During the tour in Iraq described in your book, you were then an Air Force officer with the rank of major. As I understand it, you technically outranked the other interrogators, or 'gators, including the commanding officer, an Army Captain you refer to as "Randy," though I take it that this was an Army operation in which you were nominally "a guest". Did you find this to be an unusual situation for you? You describe working with colleagues in trying to steer them toward your "traditional" (or if you like, "professional") bent of "rapport building" in interrogation-- the concept that a subject with whom you have built a relationship of trust and respect is more likely to provide valuable information than one who has not built such a relationship with his interrogator, and some of your colleagues were more receptive to this than others. Did you find any correlation between who was more likely to consider alternatives (such as "rapport building" rather than "fear up" or "total control") and rank or experience?

Matthew Alexander: It was not unusual for me to be working in an Army run joint unit or for someone of lower rank. First, I’ve spent a good portion of my career working in joint units, such as my time as a Special Operations helicopter pilot working in the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the Special Ops joint arena, rank is often ignored in favor of expertise. What was interesting about my relationship with the unit in Iraq is that I was the highest ranking interrogator, meaning not that I was a Major and my direct supervisor a Captain, but that no one above me was an interrogator, which leads to the second portion of your question. Much of the opposition to rapport based interrogations came from those who had very limited experience and no law enforcement experience. There appeared to be a direct correlation between those who used racial epithets to refer to detainees and those who consistently wanted to use harsh methods. Prejudice against Muslims and Arabs was negatively affecting our ability to elicit information through interrogations because it promoted incorrect stereotypes which led to incorrect detainee analysis and, hence, misapplied interrogation approaches.

The Talking Dog: From my interview with Erik Saar, a former military Arabic linguist at Guantanamo with the rank of sergeant, who noted that many of the interrogators who he worked with at Guantanamo were themselves NCOs (and the GTMO interrogation operation was, at least originally, under the command of a reservist, Maj. General Michael Dunlavey), it had always struck me as somewhat odd that a purportedly critical mission like interrogating supposed al Qaeda figures was left to inexperienced NCOs (some, presumably on their first tours of duty)... leading me to wonder if the GTMO interrogation operation wasn't largely a "Potemkin Village"... in fact, command (if not necessarily the White House or Congress) was well aware it was holding a bunch of nobodies, and so (my supposition) it could afford not to send YOU to Guantanamo. My question is, based on your experience in the military, was this situation (by and large inexperienced NCO interrogators, sometimes or perhaps even often aided by NCO military linguists on their first tours) an exception, or was the situation you found in your "Gator Pit" in Iraq-- with experienced interrogators, often of officer rank-- more of "the exception"... or is there another answer? Also, with no disrespect to Mr. Saar, but following up something that you discussed when we met... am I correct that the type of linguist/interpreter you preferred tended not to be a native-born American trained as a linguist, but generally a contractor of Middle Eastern origins, because of their valuable cultural sensitivities?

Matthew Alexander: In 2006, when I was deployed to Iraq, I think it is fair to say that we were significantly short of interrogators everywhere. My group of Air Force special agents specifically was chosen to supplement an elite task force in Iraq based on our qualifications as criminal interrogators, yet we had to undergo even further scrutiny before being selected to deploy.

The problem with the Army model of recruiting interrogators is that it selects recruits based on an academic aptitude exam (which I think is based on the notion that a minimum level of academic aptitude is required for language training, which most interrogators attend). The problem is that interrogation is a social skill, not an academic one. So the Army is most likely recruiting the exact opposite personalities as those required for the art of interrogations. That said, they often get lucky and I found that the young Army interrogators that worked on my team in Iraq were extremely bright, intellectual, and quick to learn. The problem is supervision. If they are taught negative stereotypes and operate in a culture that tolerates violations of the regulations and law, then things can quickly digress.

My team of a dozen or so interrogators was about half US Army interrogators and most were on their first tour. A few had never been outside the U.S. or talked to an Arab or Muslim before arriving.

Chris Mackey in his book "The Interrogators" talks about their inability to distinguish good from bad and high level from low level detainees during the early months in the war in Afghanistan. He suggests that we sent a lot of nobodies to Gitmo.

I prefer a trained, native interpreter over a soldier with language skills because the interpreter is also a cultural encyclopedia. Several times my interpreters made crucial inputs to my interrogation strategies based on their cultural knowledge. Some of our Army interrogators were trained in Arabic but still had to use an interpreter as there were 14 dialects of Arabic in Iraq and also because interrogation is a very nuanced conversation.

The Talking Dog: In your "day job" in the Air Force, you had been a criminal investigator-- a detective as it were, experienced in questioning criminal suspects and witnesses. I take it you were "re-trained" in military interrogations (your book indicated a "crash course" at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, if I recall correctly). In terms of doctrine or theory (or perhaps in terms of the applicable Army Field Manual... 34-52?), did you find significant differences in the doctrine of military interrogation of captured hostiles and those of military criminal investigation? And obviously you found your criminal investigation experience to be an advantage in conducting interrogations, and you have suggested that a good interrogator needs to be flexible and creative... "a good interrogator needs to be a good American" I believe, to quote you. Given the seeming resistance you encountered among some of your colleague "gators" toward your "rapport building" (and "respect-based") methods, I'm wondering to what extent you attribute that to the orthodoxy of the military doctrine given in training? To what extent do you attribute this resistance to the rather crass politics of "your with us or against us," demonizing the enemy and so forth?

Matthew Alexander: I was trained by the Army at Fort Huachuca in a six-week crash course on interrogations. It was four weeks too long. I say that because many of the subjects we covered my group of Air Force agents had just completed in our separate pre-deployment tactics course. Subjects like how to use an interpreter, terrorism, and such. Still, the instructors did well at teaching us the Army Manual interrogation approaches. The Army techniques are mostly effective if tailored for the culture (there’s a couple that I would argue are ineffective and counterproductive – Fear Up and Pride and Ego Down). The main difference I noted is that as a criminal investigator there was heavy emphasis on the rapport building and analysis phases, but the Army program emphasized the interrogation techniques. What was disappointing about the Army training is that there were no Arab or Muslim instructors, so the cultural learning was basically limited to slide presentations. The best thing we can do to increase the effectiveness of our interrogation methods is to improve our culture training.

Because it’s the Army, I do think the organizational culture reinforces an "us versus them" mentality that results in a misplaced attitude towards the detainee/interrogator relationship. This is easily corrected with proper training and supervision.

The Talking Dog: We seem to have a plethora of t.v. shows demonstrating detectives at their work (the Law and Order franchise, NCIS in the military context, the CSI's and so forth), and yet, you have observed, police officers continue to get suspects to confess despite the prevalence of these programs, just as you managed to get subjects to provide information, despite the presumed familiarity with general methods. Why do you think, despite the success that good old guile and trickery and what I'll call non-coercive methods of persuasion in both law enforcement (real and fictional), and, of course, in your own personal experience, has something as insidious as the purported effectiveness of torture as depicted in "24" managed to sink into the national consciousness, not only of our politicians, but of a huge number of people? I take it you would agree with me that our reputation for engaging in this kind of activity (such as what a number of members of Congress particularly of one party that shall remain nameless have been recently suggesting about the Christmas underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, notwithstanding that he had actually been cooperating with good old law enforcement, he should still have been subjected to "enhanced interrogation" better known as torture) is by far the best recruiting tool our enemies have?

Matthew Alexander: First, shows like 24 that show torture are fiction. I’ve been on the set of 24 with Eric Maddox, the interrogator who found Saddam Hussein, to talk to the executive producer and writers about showing interrogations that are exciting and effective instead of torture. In the premier episode of the following season Jack Bauer tortures a suspect and it works. Our expertise fell on deaf ears. Why? Because torture sells.

The truth is that torture doesn’t work and the long term negative consequences are dramatic, as we’ve already experienced. Much of the fictional ballyhoo is accepted by the public because they simply are not educated on the art and science of interrogations and unaware of the success we’ve had in the past without torture or abuse. There are legendary interrogators from World War II such as Marine Major Sherwood Moran, TSgt Grant Hirabayashi, The Fort Hunt Interrogators, Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, and even the German interrogator Hanns Scharff, who all successfully conducted interrogations lawfully. Also, Orrin DeForrest, a contract CIA interrogator in Vietnam, had tremendous success using relationship building approaches and taught the South Vietnamese to quit torturing.

It’s disappointing that the American people, wrongly informed by elected officials and others who spread stereotypes about Muslims and absolute falsehoods about interrogations, are not better educated about our rich history of successfully conducting non-coercive interrogations. I plan to change that.

I’ve written extensively about how Al Qaida used our policy of torture and abuse as a recruiting tool for foreign fighters who came to Iraq and killed Americans. That policy cost us the lives of American soldiers and will continue to do so.

The Talking Dog: I understand that your account of your interrogation of the subject you refer to as "Abu Haydar," a very senior figure in Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamea" organization whose information led directly to Zarqawi, which you indicate was conducted over an extremely compressed time frame of about 6-8 hours (or what amounted to a "peer to peer" conversation using techniques of respect, trickery and playing to the subject's ego... one certainly is inclined to "compare and contrast" similar egomaniacal figures like KSM...) before he would have been transferred to Abu Ghraib and out of your control, was originally the subject of military censorship, and that you eventually had to obtain a court order to get permission to publish a number of pieces of unclassified information; am I correct that in your view, the reason for the censorship was not to protect any matters of national security, so much as to protect the military from the embarrassment of revealing that it's seemingly preferred method of "fear-up" and "disrespect-based" interrogations, despite having gone on for days if not weeks, just weren't particularly effective? Did you see a political angle in this attempt at censorship?

Matthew Alexander: I’m not sure there was a political angle, but certainly there was an attempt by some entity in the Department of Defense to censor my manuscript such that the public would not know that we found Abu Musab Al Zarqawi by using non-coercive techniques. In fact, fear and control based techniques nearly cost us that opportunity. It may be that the unit I worked for in Iraq also did not want it to be known that they nearly transferred the guy who handed us Zarqawi because they refused to accept that there was a better way to interrogate than the methods used by the ‘old school’ interrogators.

The Talking Dog: One of the more poignant accounts in your book are of your interrogation of a bomb-maker, who seemed to have joined al-Qaeda not so much for the reasons many did (of trying to protect his family from rampaging Shiite militias unleashed by the American invasion and unchecked by the American occupation), but for money to satisfy the lifestyle demands of his young second wife, and of the case of the completely innocent men, who had the misfortune of owning the same make and model vehicle as a terrorist suspect. Let's start with this one, who you eventually tricked through the brilliant ruse of a fabricated Iraqi legal document. You noted that it was a category error of American mindset-- as confirmed by your attempt to brief a general on the subject-- that members of Al Qaeda in Iraq were all hard-core militants, motivated by the stereotypical ideology of trying to reconstruct the Caliphate, impose Sharia law throughout the former Caliphate and so forth, and could never be swayed out of this ideology-- rather than the harsh realities described earlier in this question (and of course, for other reasons). I believe you have said that in the hundreds of interrogations you did, and over a thousand you monitored, you encountered perhaps one "true believer zealot," and even in that case you found the subject to be potentially malleable if interrogated properly. And so my question on this is: Despite the reality you observed, why was it taken almost as an article of faith that the enemy's motives were purely ideological (if not "comic book" clear) , and do you believe (as I do) that such a belief has actually proven counter-productive at fighting a much more complex and fluid enemy?

Matthew Alexander: As I stated earlier, stereotyping our enemies led down a disastrous path in Iraq and significantly harmed our interrogations. It goes back to that old Sun Tzu saying, “Know they self, know they enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” Even some of the Iraqis who joined Al Qaida for social or economic reasons and then adopted the ideology were fairly easy to win back as Iraqis are very secular and tolerant. I actually believe that the most fanatical Al Qaida members are the easiest to interrogate simply because they are driven by emotions (probably how they were recruited) and those emotions can then be used by the interrogator.

The Talking Dog: The second, subject I found extremely compelling were an innocent pair of brothers, picked up based on a misidentification of their vehicle. As you know, one of the areas I focus in is American detention policy, particularly related to Guantanamo, from where almost 600 of the nearly 800 men who have passed through there have been released, six or seven have died, and a whopping three have been convicted by military commissions (and of those, one who stood mute during his trial received a life sentence, and the other two men have been released to Australia and Yemen respectively), and even over half of those remaining have been "cleared for release" by the executive and/or judicial branches. My point is that it has become clear that in picking up these men (a tiny number of whom were "captured on the battlefield," and many turned over for bounties by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance) that even had interrogators at Kandahar, Bagram or Guantanamo made a determination as you did in the case of the "BMW brothers" that "hey, we have the wrong guy," there was simply no mechanism at the operational level to make this call of "innocence" (indeed, famously, every Arab who arrived at Bagram was sent on to Guantanamo), notwithstanding how important it would have been culturally and politically to have shown our reasonableness in releasing innocent men and apologizing (and perhaps even compensating them) for wrongfully detaining them. I'm just wondering if you could comment on that situation, and tell me if in your view, the ability to determine that you had, rather than a recalcitrant hostile, an actual "innocent person," was something of an exception (if you like, unique to YOU), or was it somewhat more common than I think it was, or something else entirely? Also-- could you comment on the "adjudication" system in Iraq associated with those you interrogated-- such as, for example, if there were article 5 tribunals in place in Iraq, if you know, the Iraqi justice system, or anything else of relevance to this question (!) ?

Matthew Alexander: What I can say is that for my last month in Iraq I was on a raid team and conducted interrogations at the point-of-capture (aka in a home, car, street…) and over half the time we raided a house it was the wrong house. I quickly learned that what you do in the wrong house is more important than what you do in the right house. I’d rather let a dozen guilty people go than detain one innocent one because the larger battle isn’t a tactical one – it’s a strategic one based on winning hearts and minds. That’s the nature of counterinsurgency and it’s extremely difficult to get accurate, timely intelligence information. But that’s why we wear the uniform, because we don’t shy away from our duties just because they are difficult. Instead, we have to risk letting guilty people go which may later cost us lives because it helps us in the long run which will ultimately end up saving more lives.

The critical node in this process is the commander in the field. They make the decisions on who gets detained or released. They are the ones that must use discretion.

The Talking Dog: One of the areas you brought to bear in your interrogations was knowledge and respect for the religion and culture of your subjects. Given the descriptions of interrogations from Guantanamo that have included, aside from sleep deprivation, stress positions (not to mention the occasional water-boarding), included religious and cultural disrespect, including kicking the Koran around, wiping fake menstrual blood on one of the detainees, sexual provocation, use of dogs, in at least one case, wrapping a detainee in an Israeli flag and so forth, does it surprise you (as it does me!) that the interrogators there not only had so little knowledge of the culture of the people they were interrogating as so little knowledge about what makes for effective interrogation? It strikes me that your knowledge of and interest in Islam and Middle Eastern culture was somewhat unusual for interrogators... am I correct on that? I take it you found it to be an advantage; my question is why it seemed (and correct me if I'm wrong) that the military did not seem particularly interested in providing its interrogators with such a broad knowledge base, rather than evidently reinforcing stereotypes (and further, if I'm not mistaken, after Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib's abuses were reported, "religion was off the table)?

Matthew Alexander: I’m still surprised by the reluctance in the military to embrace the positive attributes of Islam. They are the same as in Christianity and other major religions. Again, I think this goes back to stereotypes and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. The first line of the Qu’ran is “Praise be to Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” That line is repeated before every chapter. Understanding Islam as a religion of compassion and not stereotyping it as a religion of violence is key to our ability to interrogate detainees.

Religion was taboo when I went through the training and was in Iraq simply because the Army did not trust their interrogators to discuss religion since they had such little exposure to it. All the interrogators had to do was pick up a read a little of the Qu’ran or a book like Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History, versus the book that I saw people passing around, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.” Reading that to understand Islam is like reading the Mein Kampf to understand Christianity.

The Talking Dog: On that note-- this touches on an earlier question-- but with your years of experience as an investigator-- were you not actually more experienced than most, if not all of the interrogators you encountered? Why do you think the military didn't recruit both similar investigators from within the military and from civilian law enforcement agencies for this function, seeing that it would seem to be such a logical fit?

Matthew Alexander: It would be a logical fit but it’s a matter of numbers. The Army has a LOT of interrogators and there just aren’t enough applicants, especially considering the low pay and benefits. If we want to recruit better interrogators, we have to offer better incentives. Also, there are no officer interrogators in the Army so they have no voice in the upper echelons where budgetary decisions are made.

Law enforcement officers are particularly well-suited to interrogate Al Qaida detainees because Al Qaida is organized like a criminal gang or the Mafia.

The Talking Dog:. Following up that point, and this is the "at least three trillion dollar question," referencing at least Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz's estimate for the cost of the "war on terror," not to mention the potential incalculable damage to our republic by the willy nilly over the top electronic surveillance, the PATRIOT Act and so forth, none of which has been remotely successful at locating let alone capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leadership, while it has given aid and succor to our enemy who can rightly point out that we as a nation, willing to embrace "enhanced interrogation" and "indefinite detention" and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo... are horribly hypocritical in so many ways... that said, given our predilection for trillions for Blackwater and high tech toys... why so little for actual human intelligence (I suppose in every sense of the word) and knowledge, cultural respect and plain old grit and cunning, and what you brought to the Zarqawi hunt, to wit, plain old "old school" interrogation? Why are we so wedded to the expensive stuff... are cynics like me who believe that lobbyists for the military industrial complex have seen to it that there is an incentive to keep our wars going rather than win them? As you and I discussed when we met, I guess the companion question to that is why are we allowing decisions to be made by amateurs (such as Dick Cheney, who never served in uniform let alone conducted an interrogation), and to what extent do you see basic operational decisions like what kind of interrogations to run being made as a result of political decisions?

Matthew Alexander: One problem for the career field of interrogations is that they have no lobby. We don’t build anything and we can’t offer any jobs to elected officials for which they can vote to support us. Hence, interrogators rely on the good will of senior military leaders to go to bat for us and afford us the proper resources. I believe it’s getting more funding and improving, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Interrogations are our best source of intelligence information. Zarqawi, Saddam, Noordin Muhammad Top (most wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia)….all were killed or captured because of interrogations. We lost our best chance at finding Osama Bin Laden when the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.

It will take good leadership at the top for interrogators to get the resources and training they deserve to do their job, which pays off tremendously.

The Talking Dog: I join all of our readers in thanking Matthew Alexander for that fascinating interview.