“There Is A Better Way”

“There Is A Better Way”

Scott Horton has a really good interview with Matthew Alexander, the military interrogator whose interrogations helped the US locate and kill Zarqawi. Alexander’s answers should put paid to the Ticking Time Bomb argument once and for all:

“In Iraq, we lived the “ticking time bomb” scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda’s best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn’t matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. (…)”

“I convinced the man who led us to Zarqawi to cooperate after only six hours of interrogation using a relationship-building approach. The old methods of interrogation had failed for twenty days to convince this man to cooperate. The American public has a right to know that they do not have to choose between torture and terror. There is a better way to conduct interrogations that works more efficiently, keeps Americans safe, and doesn’t sacrifice our integrity. Our greatest victory to date in this war, the death of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (which saved thousands of lives and helped pave the way to the Sunni Awakening), was achieved using interrogation methods that had nothing to do with torture. The American people deserve to know that.”

Torture: ineffective after twenty days. Relationship-building: effective in six hours. Also:

“The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The majority of suicide bombings are carried out by foreign fighters who volunteered and came to Iraq with this motivation. Consequently it is clear that at least hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives (not to count Iraqi civilian deaths) are linked directly to the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners as accepted tactics. Americans have died from terrorist attacks since 9/11; those Americans just happen to be American soldiers. This is not simply my view — it is widely held among senior officers in the U.S. military today. Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that “U.S. flag-rank officers maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq — as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat — are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” We owe it to our troops to protect them from terrorist attacks by not conducting torture and we owe it to our forefathers to uphold the American principles that they passed down to us.”

Torture: blowback, costing lives. No torture: no blowback, so no such cost. Also: torture: requires selling soul. No torture: soul retained. And: torture: makes mockery of claim that our country has principles. No torture: our principles in action.

The choice between torture and no torture seems pretty obvious to me. It’s a pity we have spent the last eight years being governed by people who are not just morally stunted but more interested in looking tough than in keeping the country safe. Contrast the quotes above, which come from someone who has actually been an interrogator, with Dick Cheney’s latest musings on ethics:

“”And I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do. If I was faced with those circumstances again I’d do exactly the same thing,” Mr. Cheney said.”

In just over a month, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will return to private life, and we’ll never have to pay any attention to them again unless they are prosecuted for war crimes. That moment cannot come too quickly.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation