WASHINGTON – Like some of the United States's fiercest interrogators in the War on Terrorism,Matthew Alexander began with extreme temperatures. He knew the heat would affect the detainees' resolve and went to great lengths to ensure the liquid was incredibly hot at the beginning of each interrogation.
So when the microwave beeped early each morning in April 2006,Alexander would rush over,grab the Gatorade hot chocolate shake,and bring it to a detainee known as Tariq,captured in an Iraqi farmhouse.
The hot liquid wasn't for torture but for building cooperation.
Alexander heard that Tariq's newlywed wife had brought him hot cocoa for breakfast every morning and decided to continue the routine to give Tariq a sense of security,albeit a false one.
“Every interrogation starts with rapport and relationship building,” he said.
For Alexander,interrogation was never about coercing detainees into cooperating through torture and abuse. Instead,he built rapport through empathy,cultural understanding and deception.
Alexander told an audience of 200 at the International Spy Museum Monday how he convinced members of al-Qaida to talk. The information he obtained led to the targeted killing of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Alexander spent 14 years in the military and wrote a book,”How to Break a Terrorist.”
Alexander uses a pseudonym for personal security reasons,said his attorney Mark S. Zaid.
He found that rapport could be built even during a rushed interrogation during a raid or mission.
“I can walk into an interrogation room with a Quran and recite a line and get respect and rapport in 10 seconds,” he said. “Being familiar with a book that's so dear to our enemies can only help us.”
Alexander often initiated conversations with detainees by asking them questions about Islamic history and culture and assumed the role of a student. He said most detainees found it flattering to teach their religion.
“I allowed him to think he was manipulating me when I was truly manipulating him,” he said.
Yet Alexander said few of his peers were able to use similar tactics. His interrogation unit received only two hours of training about Iraqi culture,which a U.S. soldier who had never been to the Middle East taught with PowerPoint slides. And Alexander has never met another interrogator who has read the Quran.
In fact,Alexander said many of the interrogators who tortured detainees learned about Islam through books such as “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades),” which portrays the religion as militant and oppressive. He found that the interrogators who used derogatory terms toward Muslims and Arabs were often the ones resorting to torture.
Alexander opposes torture on both moral and strategic grounds and forbade any of the interrogators he supervised from using techniques not explicitly approved in the Army Field Manual. He said torture is the least-effective method of obtaining intelligence because it makes detainees less likely to cooperate or leads to unreliable or incomplete information.
In addition,Alexander said torture at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay was the main reason foreign fighters came to Iraq.
“There are American soldiers today who are dead because of this policy,” he said.
More important to Alexander,though,is the moral rationale against torture.
“This war is as much about protecting our security as it is preserving our values,” he said. “We can't become our enemy in trying to defeat them.”
Alexander's hot chocolate diplomacy initiated quality conversation and gleaned insight into Tariq's personality. Once Alexander realized that Tariq looked down on the peers he was captured with,Alexander falsified a statement from one of them blaming Tariq for their capture.
When Tariq saw this,he became furious and let down his guard. This enabled Alexander to figure out who Tariq worked for,eventually leading to Zarqawi's assassination two months later.
Alexander said the continued use of non-coercive techniques will be essential to weakening Islamic militants.
“The front of this war for the military is in the interrogation booth,” he said. “We can shoot targets,but we can't find them.”