Matthew Alexander, the military officer and interrogator responsible for obtaining the information that led to the death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, has just published in the Washington Post a scathing indictment of U.S. torture policies. It’s part of the publicity campaign for his new book on the same topic--a book that was originally held up from publication by the Pentagon--called How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.
When the guy who got Zarqawi calls U.S. interrogations in Iraq "un-American," it’s a big deal.
From Sunday’s Washington Post:
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.
U.S. interrogation policy is "un-American" and "it just doesn’t work." As damning as those first two paragraphs are, the pseudonymous Alexander is just getting started. After explaining why those techniques don’t work, Alexander pushes Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld onto the tracks--by confirming something we’ve said at VoteVets.org in the past:
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.
If you support torture, or even "harsh" techniques, repudiation from a more-than-qualified source doesn’t get more explicit than that. Alexander begins his closing with this:
My experiences have landed me in the middle of another war -- one even more important than the Iraq conflict. The war after the war is a fight about who we are as Americans. Murderers like Zarqawi can kill us, but they can't force us to change who we are. We can only do that to ourselves. One day, when my grandkids sit on my knee and ask me about the war, I'll say to them, "Which one?"
Americans, including officers like myself, must fight to protect our values not only from al-Qaeda but also from those within our own country who would erode them.
I'm actually quite optimistic these days, in no small measure because President-elect Barack Obama has promised to outlaw the practice of torture throughout our government. But until we renounce the sorts of abuses that have stained our national honor, al-Qaeda will be winning. Zarqawi is dead, but he has still forced us to show the world that we do not adhere to the principles we say we cherish. We're better than that. We're smarter, too.
What I find most ironic about this is how it now affects torture cheerleaders. Take the conservative, military-oriented site Blackfive, for instance. They’ve consistently feigned support for the troops by advocating for torture. And of course, when the Zarqawi kill was announced, they were euphoric. For the mission’s ultimate success, they seemed to praise everybody: the pilots, the people who built the airplanes, the kid who wiped the canopy clean before mission, and even the person who invented GPS. But in their self-righteous gloating, the one group of people they forgot to praise were the ones who actually got the critical information that let us know where Zarqawi was--the interrogators who didn't torture.
And that oversight is symbolic of all of America’s torture advocates--and their complete and total misunderstanding of what’s important when you’re fighting an insurgency. Matthew Alexander--the interrogator who ended Zarqawi’s reign of terror in Iraq--is living proof.
Also available at VetVoice
Full disclosure: Matthew and I share the same literary agent.