The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture reminded me of a fascinating guest from six years ago. When I posted the audio of that conversation, I wrote:
In the debate over using torture in interrogating detainees in Iraq and at Guantanamo, we’ve heard from a lot of armchair quarterbacks — pundits who have never interrogated anyone, but think they know which techniques would be most effective in eliciting information from a prisoner.
None of them has had the experience of Matthew Alexander, who was the chief US interrogator in Iraq, and who led the team that eventually brought down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. How did Alexander and his colleagues do it? By using brains, not brutality. By building relationships, not beating people up.
I spent an hour last week speaking with Alexander about his experience, which he recounts in his book, “How To Break A Terrorist.” He told me that torturing prisoners ended up costing American lives, as it served as the biggest recruiting point for Al Qaeda. We talked about his methods and results, despite resistance from the Pentagon (which fought the publication of his book), and why he so strongly disagrees with torture as an interrogation technique.
He explained how his team elicited information from adults (and children) who didn’t bother to contain their hatred for America, how his translators were helpful in explaining idioms peculiar to Iraqi culture, and how he managed to gather information from even the most hardened detainees.
This is not a guy in a think tank or a TV talking head. Alexander sat a foot away from terrorists and fanatics and won the mental battle time and again. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work, which hopefully has influenced those who succeeded him.
One of the important takeaways from the new report is how right Alexander was, and how wrong the political geniuses in Washington were. The report says that not only was torture ineffective in preventing or predicting terrorist attacks, but to the contrary, it cost lives.
The saddest part is that there will be no accountability for those who made the decision to torture — including Cheney and Bush — even after claiming we never would. Worse is the string of lies the CIA told not only to the public but in private to the White House. One can only conclude that the reason they kept their actions secret from even the president was because they knew they were wrong and counterproductive. The level of deceit and misinformation coming from the CIA to those who were supposed to oversee their activities sounds criminal to me, but none of the agency’s directors (e.g. Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet) or underlings will be charged or held responsible.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration won’t take action against any of the architects of the torture-is-good policy. Although the president told a TV outlet the techniques “constituted torture in my mind” and were a betrayal of American values, he also issued a written statement praising the CIA employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country. That’s just Obama playing politics, trying not to look like he’s the enemy of the CIA. But there is nothing wrong with calling out and prosecuting wrongdoing within our government. And don’t believe the politicians who claim that the release of this report will cost lives, because it was these very violations that endangered American lives rather than protecting them.
Here’s a simple test to take: how would you react if these torture protocols were used against an American held hostage by Al Qaeda? How do you feel every time Isis posts video of another American being beheaded? If that turns your stomach, if it makes you think the enemy is inhuman, it if violates everything you believe is right, then how can you possibly condone it being done by Americans, and how can you not consider these actions to be war crimes?
Glenn Greenwald takes the media to task for once again playing along with the powerful in Washington by not covering what was being done in our name — to the point of not even using the word “torture”…
American torture was not confined to a handful of aberrational cases or techniques, nor was it the work of rogue CIA agents. It was an officially sanctioned, worldwide regime of torture that had the acquiescence, if not explicit approval, of the top members of both political parties in Congress. It was motivated by far more than interrogation. The evidence for all of this is conclusive and overwhelming. And the American media bears much of the blame, as they refused for years even to use the word “torture” to describe any of this (even as they called these same techniques “torture” when used by American adversaries), a shameful and cowardly abdication that continues literally to this day in many of the most influential outlets.