Torture doesn’t work, redux

TORTURE DOESN’T WORK, REDUX…. One would like to think that the debate over torture policies is over. Torture doesn’t work, it’s illegal, it undermines our global standing, and it’s fundamentally, morally repugnant. And yet, the argument persists.

The leader of a U.S. interrogations team in Iraq in 2006, writing under the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander,” had some fascinating insights in a piece for the Washington Post yesterday. The whole piece is worth reading, but the anecdote about acquiring the intelligence that led to the attack on al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stood out.

When “Alexander” arrived in the midst of horrific bloodshed, he found that the military was bending, and occasionally breaking, the rules on interrogations, which “often resulted in torture and abuse.” He refused to engage in these tactics, and prohibited his team from straying from the rules.

I taught the members of my unit a new methodology — one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of “ruses and trickery”). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi. […]

We convinced one of Zarqawi’s associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader’s location. On June 8, 2006, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house where Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders.

But Zarqawi’s death wasn’t enough to convince the joint Special Operations task force for which I worked to change its attitude toward interrogations. The old methods continued. I came home from Iraq feeling as if my mission was far from accomplished. Soon after my return, the public learned that another part of our government, the CIA, had repeatedly used waterboarding to try to get information out of detainees.

I know the counter-argument well — that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that’s not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, “I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.”

Imagine that.

Just as importantly, “Alexander” explained that torture literally costs American lives — one of the principal reasons foreign fighters flocked to Iraq to fight U.S. troops was the recruiting efforts fueled by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo abuses.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.