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Steve Weissman: But What If Torture Works?

But What If Torture Works?

Tuesday 27 January 2009
by: Steve Weissman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

"How do you feel about waterboarding or other enhanced interrogation techniques?" asked the unit commander.

"I'm opposed to enhanced techniques," Matthew answered. "They're against Geneva Conventions and, ultimately, they do more harm than good. Besides, we don't need them."

"What do you mean?"

"A good interrogator can get the information he needs in more subtle ways."

The interview took place in 2006 at an American base north of Baghdad. The military was still reeling from the exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib, and Matthew, an Air Force major, headed one of the first groups trained in a different way to interrogate detainees. Instead of using fear, control and physical coercion, they would use "respect, rapport, hope, cunning and deception."

Matthew, a pseudonym, called this "a new approach," but anyone who has read Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" or watched Peter Falk play Lieutenant Colombo on television, will instantly recognize the vintage techniques of getting inside a criminal suspect's head. Matthew and his newly trained people had all worked as criminal investigators in the Air Force, and he had also worked in counter-intelligence, including time in Saudi Arabia.

Matthew sailed through his interview and was named senior interrogator for a Special Operations Task Force that would prove crucial to the American occupation of Iraq. The task force included the new team of interrogators that arrived with Matthew and veterans of Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq who favored the older browbeating, though shorn of the physical brutality. Together, this mixed bag of "gators" provided intelligence to a Special Forces Unit that was ready to act on a moment's notice.

The target - and the test of the "new approach" - was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, whose suicide bombing campaign against Shi'a mosques and marketplaces had plunged Iraq into a sectarian civil war. Zarqawi was at the time the American military's most wanted terrorist, a higher priority than Osama bin Laden.

Matthew tells the story in an exciting thriller called "How To Break A Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, To Take Down The Deadliest Man In Iraq." Matthew and co-author Jon Bruning have changed the names to protect the innocent - and the guilty, a distinction that is sometimes hard to make. But the story is true, and the Defense Department has added a note of authenticity by forcing the publisher to black out some of the text "for security reasons."

As the book's title suggests and history confirms, Matthew and his interrogators broke a wide range of detainees and got them to cough up the clues that finally located Zarqawi, and an American air strike killed him and others at a not-so-safe house hidden away in the Iraqi countryside. Even knowing how the manhunt will end, I found myself fascinated by the psychological encounters with each of the detainees and the step-by-step detective work that built up the picture of Zarqawi's organization that allowed the task force to put him out of business.

Apart from providing a good read, Matthew - and I would guess his Air Force superiors - are using the book to sell their "new approach." "How To Break A Terrorist" answers anyone who still thinks America needs waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and worse to break the back of jihadi terrorism. We don't, and never did. While I'm certain that torture can, on occasion, pry loose the truth from unwilling lips, intense pain far more often encourages whatever lies the detainee thinks his interrogators want to hear. Those lies have sent American forces on countless wild goose chases, and also helped sell the American war in Iraq with pain-induced fantasies of Saddam Hussein's long-gone weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent ties to Osama bin Laden.

As Matthew shows, a well-thought-out nudge produces far better intelligence than does any effort to impose fear and control. It also yielded a much clearer understanding of why so many Iraqi Sunnis turned to Zarqawi's terrorists, whether for protection against Shi'a militia, a chance to earn money, or a sincere belief in a new Islamic Caliphate. These were nuances that Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and much of the military brass found hard to accept, as was the undeniable truth that Abu Ghraib and Gitmo encouraged far more ticking bombs than torture ever prevented.

Sadly, the Obama administration has not fully learned the lesson. For all the dramatic announcements that we would stop all torture and close Guantanamo and our gulag of secret detention centers, the small print reveals that the CIA may return to its old tricks if we ever capture Osama bin Laden or one of his top aides. What an incredibly dumb idea that would be.


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A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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