DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Our guest, Matthew Alexander, was a senior military interrogator in Iraq. In 2006, he led an interrogation team that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Alexander is known for rejecting and criticizing harsh interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding. He says his team was able to track down Zarqawi by building trust and rapport with members of Zarqawi's network held in a prison in northern Iraq. Alexander chronicled that experience in his book "How to Break a Terrorist."
His new book describes his experience as part of a Special Forces team that conducted dozens of raids at homes of suspected al-Qaida members. His role was primarily to interrogate suspected insurgents and their families in their homes, on those raids.
Matthew Alexander is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. A four-time combat veteran of Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. His new book is called "Kill or Capture."
Well, Matthew Alexander, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you worked for a period of time at a prison, where you were stationary, and detainees were brought in and you would do interrogations. And then for a period of time you were the lead interrogator, where you would supervise others. Did you have sort of a standard way to begin an interrogation?
Mr. MATTHEW ALEXANDER (Author, "Kill or Capture"): There is - several ways that I would begin. Sometimes I would walk in with a copy, my copy of the Quran, and I would recite a line. Usually I would use the first line of the Quran, which is praise be to Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful - which would help me to show compassion toward my enemy, who's sitting in front of me, but then also put in place an obligation of reciprocity on their part to show compassion towards me by reciprocating, by providing information.
Sometimes I just started with questions: What's your name? Where are you from? Tell me a little bit about your life. Because the first step of any interrogation is to understand your detainee, understand what uniquely motivates them as an individual. Why did they join al-Qaida or another insurgent group? Why did they decide to pick up arms?
And if you can analyze them and figure out those motivations, then you can craft an appropriate approach and incentive - but not until you've done that.
DAVIES: I noticed that you would often begin by saying: I'm going to treat you with respect, and I would like you to treat me with respect, by which I mean you don't lie to me. And it seems in a lot of the prisoner interrogations that you reconstruct for us in these books, that the detainees quickly lie. Almost all of them seem to lie initially, or at least you believe they lie. Do you then confront them?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Sometimes you do, but sometimes you let them get away with the lie. For instance, I don't really care if anybody ever admits to participating in terrorist activity. I could have somebody on tape, you know, having prepared suicide bombers to go out on missions. We had detainees who we had on tape having cut people's heads off with machetes. But I would let them lie about that all day, as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed to go out and kill or capture the next target.
That's the difference between, you know, law-enforcement interrogation -you know, I was a criminal investigator - and intelligence interrogation.
And some interrogators, even in the military, forgot this - that they're not there to get a confession. In fact, I believe that the confession hurts you because it reminds both them and the interrogator that you're opponents. So I would gladly allow them to lie about their participation in terrorist activity as long as they were telling me the truth about the information I needed.
DAVIES: A couple of the techniques that you mentioned in the book, one of them is called the pride and ego up. Explain what that is.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, pride and ego up is an approach where you try to elevate the pride of the detainee. You stroke their ego. And then you use that in a spirit to say that they have power, they have what they call in Arabic wasta, which is power and influence.
And with that power and influence, they can affect their own fate. They can change their destiny by cooperating with you. Or maybe you can put them in a position of power. Like, I offered one senior al-Qaida member a chance to be in a position in the future of Iraq, and to play a role in the future of Iraq - by which he sold out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida.
DAVIES: And were you, in fact, in any position to offer him a role in the leadership of Iraq?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, to me, the role that he did play was to find and kill Zarqawi, which was a role in the future of Iraq, a very important one.
Unfortunately, when I was in Iraq - and I think this is still true to this day -interrogators and senior interrogators don't have the power to offer real incentives and to make them good.
So for instance, I can't walk in and offer a guy $100,000 to provide me the location of a senior al-Qaida member. I can't walk in and say, I'll get your family members visas out of the country so that you don't face reprisals for giving us this information.
And that's a real change. You know, in Vietnam we had real incentives that interrogators could offer captured Viet Cong members to get them to turn to our side. But we didn't do that in Iraq, and it wasn't until General Petraeus got there and offered the Sunni tribes money and weapons that they turned against al-Qaida by - with the offering of a real incentive.
DAVIES: But it seems that there were often times in which you would appear to offer them things or offer things that you couldn't deliver, in one case something that was actually a forged divorce application. You discovered one guy was in a financial jam because he had a second wife who had expensive tastes, and you dummied up a divorce document, convinced him that you could get him out of this marriage he couldn't handle.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, and false documents is something, you know, I learned to use in deception as a criminal interrogator. If you have, if you catch two young kids down here at the back of Walmart stealing TVs, I guarantee you the detectives are going to take them back to the station, put them in separate rooms, and use some form of deception.
They might tell one that the other one is giving them information, or say the first person who cooperates is going to get a deal. But they're going to use deception.
And deception is a legitimate part of warfare. You know, we don't question deception if infantry fakes an attack on the left and sweeps right. And interrogators can use deception too, but they must be careful about how they use that deception.
And the reason why is because somebody else is going to interrogate that detainee one day. And if you've used deception and you've been found out, then they're going to have a harder time establishing trust. So what the senior interrogator has to do is, they have to evaluate the gains versus the risk. What's the risk of losing rapport with this detainee by not following through on a promise versus the information you're going to get?
DAVIES: Now, when you would be with a detainee - and these were Sunni combatants that were brought in for your interrogations - and when they would say to you, you Americans caused this; you deposed the government, you disbanded the army, you allowed the Shia militias to terrorize our people, destroy our neighborhoods, remove our employment - how would you respond?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, my response is: I agree with you, that the United States has made mistakes in Iraq. I mean, nobody, at least in 2006, questioned the fact that some strategic errors were made in disbanding the army in the policy of de-Baathification, which put many Sunnis out of work who weren't really even supporters of Saddam; they just joined the Baath Party to get a job.
And so I would admit those mistakes. And almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, to a T, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that.
And it moved many of them to hear that because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions, because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology, followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing to many of them.
I talk about the first guy I interrogated in Iraq, Abu Ali(ph), and the first thing he ever said to me was: If I had a knife right now, I'd cut your throat. And three or four days later, he was cooperating, providing us information. In fact, he provided the house where we captured the detainees that led us to Zarqawi.
And that type of change happened because we were able to admit our mistakes, and make the Sunnis an offer to work together in the future.
DAVIES: And what did you tell Abu Ali that turned him around?
Mr. ALEXANDER: I talked to Abu Ali - my partner and I talked to him - about his son. When we initially interrogated him, he didn't admit that he had a son. We found out later, through another detainee, that he had a son, and we painted for him a picture of what the future of Iraq would look like with the current violence just escalating into a civil war between Sunni and Shiite.
And instead, we painted a picture that it couldn't look like, which would be a secure and safe Iraq, if Americans and Sunnis could learn to work together.
DAVIES: You write in this book that the widespread belief in misguided stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs was the single most detrimental factor to effective interrogations in Iraq. What stereotypes are you referring to, and how did they undermine these interrogations?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, the stereotype I'm referring to are things such as a common parlance that was said by some interrogators and analysts, which is that Arabs grow up in a culture of violence, so they only understand violence.
We have that documented in an email from a senior interrogator to his commander, at one point, in Iraq. And it was that type of stereotype of Arabs and of Muslims that was very counterproductive to trying to convincing people to cooperate. Because by not analyzing them and understanding them not as die-hard jihadists who hate our way of life or want to re-establish a caliphate or believe in Shariah law, but instead as Sunni Iraqis who had individual motivations for joining al-Qaida that were a broad variety of reasons - from social, economic and other reasons - we skipped the first step of every effective interrogation, which is to know your detainee.
And so those prejudices worked directly in contrast to what we were trying to accomplish.
DAVIES: And you found that even among the al-Qaida detainees that you spoke to, that by and large, they were not driven by religious commitment but more by practical considerations of their lives?
Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct, and Iraqi Sunnis are very secular. They're actually fairly moderate. In fact, they enjoy American movies and culture and TV and music. Iraqi Sunnis are actually very moderate people. They're very open to discussing religion, and open to new ideas.
I talked at length with several of my detainees about religion and religious philosophy, about Islam. And I found their interpretations of Islam to always be very reasonable.
And so I think that by categorizing all the people that we'd interrogated at the very beginning as being a certain brand of Islam - the Wahhabi version or the Taliban version - was completely counterproductive to what we were trying to accomplish, which is to get to know them so we can understand how to work with them.
DAVIES: Our guest is Matthew Alexander. He was a senior military interrogator in Iraq and has written a new book about his experiences. It's called "Kill or Capture." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Matthew Alexander. He was a senior military interrogator in Iraq. He was assigned to a special operations task force there in 2006. He has a new book, called "Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al-Qaida Terrorist."
Some of the interrogators that you worked with, I believe, were veterans of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and came from a different, harsher set of techniques in interrogation. Were there differences and, you know, battles that played out among the interrogators over how to handle the detainees?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, there was a lot of battling at the prison - when I was inside the prison - between what I call the old-school interrogators, and my new school of interrogators. And those old-school interrogators - the people who had been at Guantanamo Bay, been in Iraq and Afghanistan early on, who had been allowed to use enhanced interrogation techniques, which I believe is a euphemism for abuse, if not torture - believed that those methods should still be used.
But now we had in place the Detainee Treatment Act. So what they started to do was manipulate the rules so that they could still do what are basically enhanced interrogation techniques - or use abuse - but try and notionally stay within the rules. And that created large differences between the ways that we wanted to interrogate certain detainees.
For instance, we caught a guy named Abu Ubaida(ph), who was a high-ranking member of al-Qaida in the north of Iraq, and they immediately wanted to use a pride and ego down approach. And I had asked, why do we not consider using love of family approach, and...
DAVIES: Now, when you said a pride and ego down approach, you mean what?
Mr. ALEXANDER: That would mean - their idea was that they needed to insult him, to humiliate him, to bring down his ego, to bring down his self-respect and self-worth, to put him lower than them, so they could then force him to cooperate.
And I suggested that we use love of family, which I had found to be the most effective approach against members of al-Qaida. And lo and behold, later we found out that his son was being held in an Iraqi prison. We had him released and brought to our prison, and we put him face-to-face with his father.
And as soon as Abu Ubaida saw his son, he broke down in tears, and he said to us what - however I can help, I will. So it was love of family approach that ultimately got him to cooperate.
DAVIES: Did differences in results matter? I mean, did those of you who used newer, more flexible methods get more information and was that, you know, noticed and observed by commanders and others?
Mr. ALEXANDER: It was. When I showed up on the raid team to do interrogations out in the battlefield, they were very frustrated with interrogators that were there before us because they weren't producing as many results.
And if I had to guess - it's always hard to put a number to the success of an interrogation because you don't know if you've gotten just a small piece of what a detainee knows, which may be very important, of if you've gotten 100 percent of what they know, all of which may not be important.
But our success rate went up dramatically in the time that I was on the raid team, working with my partner, who was a former street cop, using non-coercive techniques, law-enforcement techniques, our knowledge of the culture.
And I would say that by the end, by the time I left, our success rate was up probably around 80 percent, where we would get people to cooperate. And the commander came to me and actually said, you know, when you guys first got here, I had no trust in interrogators. And now I trust you more than any other form of intelligence.
DAVIES: I want to talk about your work in going out with soldiers in, I guess, search and capture missions. Is that what they were called?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Kill or capture missions.
DAVIES: Kill or capture missions.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Kill or capture missions.
DAVIES: Kill or capture missions, all right. So you would go out in this Stryker personnel carrier, and you'd find the house or apartment that was targeted, and the soldiers would then - would run in to sweep it, to gain entry and secure it. And then you would be summoned to go in and conduct an interrogation of people who would - there - be typically bound by their hands, right?
Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct.
DAVIES: It's interesting that you use exactly the same description to describe the sound of the soldiers breaking in - right - the sounds of an explosion, the sound of metal hitting concrete. What was going on?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Almost every raid started with the same noise - which is, we would shuffle up to the fence or front gate or door, and the soldiers would go up to the front door and set a charge - some type of explosive - that would blow the door off its hinges.
Even to this day, when I hear metal falling onto stone, it jogs a memory of me -of the front door going down on a house that's about to be raided.
And then the soldiers would run into the house, and very swiftly and efficiently - these guys were fast and professional - they would go in, and they would capture people, and they would flex-cuff them, you know, behind their back with flex cuffs. And then they would call us immediately, to try and interrogate them as soon as we captured them.
And my partner and I would come in, and we've have to decide, you know, how many people are captured, who wants to interrogate the head of household, who wants to interrogate the wives, and then that's how we would start our approach.
DAVIES: Right. There would be two interrogators, you and your partner. Each of you would have an Iraqi translator. So then you would confront somebody who has been rousted from their bed or whatever, and they're there with flexicuffs on, and you would begin an interrogation.
Now, how is that different - in a field - from talking to somebody in a prison cell?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, in the field, you only have 10 or 15 minutes to get information, because the team doesn't want to stand out there in the open, where they're at risk for ambush or attack. They want to get the information and move.
And usually, the objective is to go straight from that target to the next one, to get information so that we can go do another kill or capture mission before al-Qaida has a chance to react.
So there's a much larger time pressure on the interrogators in battlefield interrogation scenarios. But it's much more fun, I think, because you have this dynamic of the ticking time, you know, counting down on you.
But you also have a lot more moving parts. For instance, the first mission I went on, we captured these twin brothers who were part of an al-Qaida cell. My partner and I immediately split the two up into separate rooms.
Initially, we asked all the questions, and all their answers seemed to make sense. There weren't any discrepancies. But we knew that these guys had to know where the weapons dealer for the cell was, and they both claimed not to know who this person was.
So we took a chance. We used an old cop technique where we went back in and told both brothers that the other one had told us where this weapons dealer lived, that it was two blocks over.
And the guy I was interrogating said no, that I didn't know what I was talking about. But my partner's detainee said he was also wrong. The weapons dealer didn't live two blocks over; he lived four blocks over. And he took us to the house.
DAVIES: When you have only a few minutes, can you establish the trust and rapport? Do you say nice things in Arabic? Do you refer to the Quran? Do you try and establish friendship?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I try to do that. You know, one of the first things I always did was take my helmet off, put my hand on somebody's shoulder, assure them that I'm not going to harm their family, allow them to see their family, to see that they're not being harmed, and ensure them that they're not going to be mistreated.
And that initial show of compassion towards them goes a long way because it's not what they're expecting at all. And when you think about it, if you're going to be captured, your expectation is that right away, you're going to get beaten. And I think a lot of Iraqis had that impression after the photos of Abu Ghraib were released, that they were going to be treated harshly upon their capture.
And so the shell-shock for them was when they were treated nicely, and that's what threw them off their game. That's what caused them to be quite confused, you know. And so we used that to our advantage. And we call that a fear down approach, from the Army field manual. You try to lower somebody's fear, because not only does fear play against you because it causes people to shut up, to be careful about what they say, but it also affects memory. And as an interrogator, you want accurate and timely intelligence information. And as we like to say, if they tell you the location of a house, that's great, but it would be better if they tell you if the house is booby-trapped.
DAVIES: Matthew Alexander was a senior military interrogator in Iraq. His new book is called "Kill or Capture." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Back with Matthew Alexander. His new book, "Kill or Capture" is about his experiences as a senior military interrogator in Iraq in 2006. He relied on building trust and rapport to get information, and he's become known as a critic of harsh interrogation methods.
Alexander spent months in Iraq traveling with a Special Forces team that conducted raids on the homes of suspected al-Qaida members and supports. After soldiers would blow the door of a home off its hinges and cuff everyone inside, Alexander had to question suspected insurgents and their families.
How often did the team go to an address and then discover it was actually the wrong place - or the people were there that you were looking for, but it turned out you had bad information and they really weren't doing anything wrong, or didn't know anything?
Mr. ALEXANDER: I would say at least half the time when we went into a housMr. ALEXANDER: I would say at least half the time when we went into a house, it ended up being the wrong house. And that's not to fault the Army. Countersurgency is complex, and it is difficult. And good, accurate intelligence information is difficult. I mean - and it's not like the houses have numbers on them, that there's even type of civil order that makes it easy, and the enemy is hiding within the civilian populace. It's extremely difficult to get good information that gets you directly to the right house.
But what I say is that what's important is how you treat people in the wrong house. You can raid the wrong house, and you can leave with somebody having a better impression of us, even prior to us coming. And that might sound like it's quite impossible, but it's not.
We raided a house twice - three times. Brought an uncle back to the prison and released him, brought a father of the guy we were looking for back to the prison, and then released him; and later had that father help us capture our target even though we had raided his house three times, because we had treated him with respect. We had paid him compensation. We had apologized for the inconvenience, restoring his respect and his honor.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting because if half the time you went to the wrong place, you never knock on the door; you blow the door off its hinges. You go in, you roust people out; soldiers empty contents of drawers onto the floor. I mean, you make a mess and you damage property, and you humiliate them. You cuff them in front of their families. How do you make it right when you apologize?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, first of all, I mean, the Iraqis themselves, many of them were opposed to the violence that was being imposed by al-Qaida, especially suicide bombings. Even if they didn't support the American occupation, they did oppose al-Qaida violence.
So many of them were quite understanding about why were conducting the raids. They believe that we should be. They were disheartened that we came to their house, but they understood that our job was difficult. And they understood that if we treated them correctly, if we apologized - yeah, you might dump things out on the floor, but you might help pick them back up. You might leave them with cash that more than compensates them for the damage to their front door. But most important, the most important part of all of that, is the apology - an earnest apology that says hey, we made a mistake here. We're sorry, but we want to work with you. We're trying to make Iraq safer. And most Iraqis understood that.
DAVIES: And was it important to apologize to the men of the house in front of their families?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Very important. Because this is a matter of respect and honor. You know, and this isn't some type of Arab cultural nuance; this would be the same way here in the United States. You know, we take pride in our houses and our ability to defend our homes. And when you come in there, you erode that pride and that self-respect for a head of household. So to apologize for them in front of their families restores that pride and that honor in their family's eyes, and goes a long way.
DAVIES: You've written in the book, and you've spoken, about the harm that's done with enhanced interrogation techniques - you know, harsh techniques like water-boarding and stress positions and sleep deprivation, torture, abuse. And you believe that a lot more information comes when you get to know the detainee. You build trust, and elicit information that way.
There is, of course, those who argue strongly that the particular demands of the war on terror mitigate against that argument, that you need to get tough with people; you can't be nice to these committed terrorists. I mean, there were, of course, the CIA reports that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed broke down and cooperated after he was water-boarded. Do you put any stock in that story or those arguments?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, I won't be one to tell you that torture never works. I've had friends who have given me examples of when torture did work. But I don't care because to me, this isn't about efficacy. We have other things that work 100 percent of the time, like chemical weapons and flame-throwers. We don't use them.
And the reason we don't use them isn't an efficacy argument, it's because it's against our morality, or because the laws of war have determined that they cause unnecessary human suffering, and we've outlawed them. And there's no exceptions to that.
I think my big disappointment is the shift in priorities - from an America that stands for principles, to an America that stands for security. My oath of office, when I took it as an officer in the United States military, didn't mention security. It mentioned allegiance and defending the Constitution, which prohibited torture when we ratified the convention against torture - and other provisions within the Constitution.
So to me, I don't care if torture works 100 percent of the time. I'm not going to use it because it goes against the very principles that I signed up to defend.
DAVIES: And what's your sense of how interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan today are approaching their jobs? Have things really changed?
Mr. ALEXANDER: I think it has changed. And my friends who are still in the field, and still interrogating, tell me that there is not torture and abuse going on, that it has stopped. But I recently - last year - had a senior Army interrogations instructor tell me that you still have to slap people around once in a while because it's all they understand.
And that - I believe that you can't talk about torture unless you talk about the prejudice that led to the torture, that the two things are intertwined. And it was that prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, and the stereotypes that were used against them, that led to the torture.
And so I think you can make rules that prohibit torture. But if you don't also make improvements to the way that we train and educate soldiers, that we'll still have incidents of torture and abuse. They might be much more rare, but the underlying conditions will still be there.
DAVIES: Well, Matthew Alexander, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ALEXANDER: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Matthew Alexander was a senior military interrogator in Iraq. His new book is called "Kill or Capture."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.