STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Last night in his news conference, President Obama was asked about a fiercely debated part of the hunt for terror suspects: so-called torture memos. These are legal memos from the Bush administration that provided justification for aggressive interrogation methods, including waterboarding. The president said even if information was gained from harsh interrogations, that did not answer some other questions.
President BARACK OBAMA: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn't answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?
INSKEEP: Those questions are at the center of a debate over two interrogation programs. One was run by the U.S. military. The other was run by the CIA. The military program was focused on getting important al-Qaida suspects in Iraq to talk. The CIA operation zeroed in important al-Qaida suspects from around the world. Both programs had similar goals, but they operated under very different rules. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Earlier this month, former CIA Director Michael Hayden was on Fox News, defending the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. He was unequivocal.
Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN (Former CIA Director): The use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work.
TEMPLE-RASTON: As Hayden and others see it, the U.S. had to use tough techniques, some would say torture, to battle al-Qaida. Matthew Alexander is an advocate of a different kind of interrogation, one that builds rapport, like the kind of technique you see on television cop shows. Alexander was a military interrogator in Iraq and doesn't see the need for rough questioning.
Mr. MATTHEW ALEXANDER (Military Interrogator, U.S. Army): One of my best techniques for building rapport was to bring into the interrogation booth a copy, my copy of the Koran and to recite a verse out of it or to ask questions about Islam.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Now it's important to know that Matthew Alexander wasn't just any military interrogator. He was in charge of the interrogation team working on one of the most important counter-terrorism operations of the war: the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man in charge of al-Qaida in Iraq. Alexander and his team arrived in Iraq in March 2006, after the abuses at Abu Ghraib forced the military to reform its interrogation process. By that time, a military task force had been searching for Zarqawi for three years. It took Alexander's team just two months to get Zarqawi's location. The al-Qaida leader was killed in a military operation in June 2006.
Mr. ALEXANDER: I know on the chase to Zarqawi, we had several people during that chase who didn't talk, but that was okay. We used the opportunities with detainees who we couldn't convince to cooperate to become better interrogators. And it was those skills that we developed in those interrogations that allowed us to break the detainees who led us to Zarqawi.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's why Alexander's experience in Iraq is instructive: He followed international standards for questioning, not the harsh techniques the CIA adopted. And yet, without waterboarding or stress positions, Alexander said he not only helped track down al-Qaida's top man in Iraq, but also managed to give the military better information.
Mr. ALEXANDER: When you use coercion in interrogation, a detainee might tell you the location of a house, but if you use cooperation they'll tell you if the house is booby trapped, and that's a very important difference.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Alexander says his success in Iraq proves that torture isn't necessary to break a terrorist. Philip Zelikow, a senior counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, agrees.
Dr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Senior Counselor to Condoleezza Rice): Against very dedicated, very dangerous Islamist terrorists in Iraq in a raging war, we did not need to adopt the extreme interrogation methods that CIA was using in the program it had designed in 2002 and 2003.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Zelikow says the comparison of the two programs - one in Iraq, and one by the CIA - allows one to judge whether harsh techniques were necessary.
Dr. ZELIKOW: Since the alternatives are effective and don't have all these downsides, including all the moral and legal issues that come with them, it seems like a very clear choice.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Even if Hayden is right about the information the U.S. got from its interrogations, Zelikow says it all came at too high a cost.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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