US Interrogator Who Decried Torture Joins Burkle Center

US Interrogator Who Decried Torture Joins Burkle Center

Photo by Jeff Antebi

Matthew Alexander, an 18-year Air Force and Air Force Reserves veteran and author of books about effective, non-coercive interrogation methods, is bringing his on-the-ground perspective about counterterrorism policies to UCLA as a Burkle Center fellow.

A veteran U.S. Air Force interrogator and outspoken opponent of policies that condone the torture and abuse of prisoners has joined the Burkle Center as a fellow. Matthew Alexander, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons, gained wide notice in 2008 with "How to Break a Terrorist," which was delayed by Pentagon attempts at censorship.

The book recounted how Alexander and his team convinced a prisoner to give up the whereabouts of the most-wanted militant in Iraq, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was a moral: relationship-building interrogation techniques got results, while cruelty "just reinforced to the detainee why they had picked up arms in the first place," Alexander said. Because an associate talked, Zarqawi was killed in a June 2006 airstrike.

Kill or Capture (cover)

In a second book of war stories full of insight and moral indignation, "Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist" (St. Martin's Press, 2011), Alexander describes another series of intelligence breakthroughs in 2006 that netted the leader of Al Qaeda in northern Iraq, a Syrian known as Zafar.

The book lays stress on the wartime value of knowledge about psychology and especially culture, which crafty interrogators wield as a weapon. Demonstrations of cultural literacy are also a way to begin establishing trust.

"I think my perspective is mostly influenced by having lived and traveled in a lot of different countries, and having a deep respect for a lot of different cultures," Alexander said. "That basic place where I start from opens my mind to the possibility that just because somebody is different doesn't mean it's bad. If it is different, how can I learn about that difference and use it as an advantage, in terms of creating a cooperating relationship?"

Except for two Shia interpreters employed by the team, who became friends and resources, Alexander conversed with Iraqis only in interrogation booths or other charged environments, such as a house after a raid. The nearest he gets to casual intimacy with an Iraqi Sunni in the book is an exchange of woeful smiles with a driver caught in Kirkuk's rush hour, a scene that's memorable for the absurdity of watching U.S. armored vehicles get trapped by a fallen sofa.

But what really stands out is Alexander's intense longing to connect: where another U.S. soldier might see a potential enemy in the dishdasha-clad Sunni man, Alexander sees a guy in a blue Datsun hatchback just like the one he had taken to the beach as a youth in Southern California.

In conducting more than 300 interrogations and observing more than 1,000, Alexander discovered over and over that even confirmed killers are human beings. Here's how the book describes the sort of bloodthirsty terrorist who decapitates victims:

After he cleans the blood off his blade, he goes home at night, eats dinner with the family, tells a joke at the supper table, and tucks his kids into bed. I think that's what Americans don't understand. To the Sunnis we were fighting in Iraq who decided to join al Qaeda, what they were doing was honorable. They were fighting. I'll never condone their tactics, but I understood why they were fighting, and because I understood why they were fighting, I could get them to talk.

Beyond extracting information, Alexander said, interrogations can become negotiations that ultimately change a detainee's outlook.

"We've been fed this line that you can't turn al Qaeda members: 'They're so radical. They're so brainwashed. They're all willing to be suicide bombers,' which is ridiculous," Alexander said. "The idea that you can't turn them is ridiculous. We've turned them time and time and time again."

Interrogators attached to a Special Operations task force: Matthew Alexander (left) and 'Mike'

Interrogators attached to a Special Operations task force: Matthew Alexander (left) and 'Mike.'

At UCLA, Alexander is exchanging perspectives with new colleagues such as Burkle Center fellow Amy Zegart, an expert on the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy, and preparing to teach a summer course on counterterrorism policy at the School of Public Affairs. He wants his students to come away with a sense of why people join terrorist groups and launch attacks, and what policies could get them to stop. Their immediate motives might be personal and even trivial, though socio-economic and political conditions play a role; in Iraq, Alexander said, widespread anger about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo helped al Qaeda. 

"What our counterterrorism policies have to be geared towards is stopping terrorist recruitment. That's the pivotal point in the conflict. There's never going to be a day in our lives when there's zero members of al Qaeda, but what there could be is a decreasing number of members of al Qaeda, and a continually decreasing number," he said.

Two books have left marks on Alexander's life and career, he explained. The first was "The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maugham, "about a veteran from World War I who goes out into the world to search for, basically, the meaning of life, and he travels all over the world and has all of these experiences." A former pilot like Maugham's protagonist Larry Darrell, Alexander later became an Air Force criminal investigator, worked in 30 countries and traveled to about 20 more. After a personal journey he's come to identify himself loosely as a Buddhist: "It's each person's obligation to search out the truth on their own," he said.

The second book was "The Great Game" by Peter Hopkirk, a history of the strategic conflict over Central Asia between Britain and Russia, featuring "British agents who traveled into Central Asia and learned the cultures and got to know the people and often came up with some really good ways to work and to be productive in intelligence work, but were later undermined by bad policy that didn't understand culture." The pseudonymous surname "Alexander" is homage to Alexander Burnes, who died in the 1842 Kabul uprising.

"We have to overcome our prejudices against Arabs and Muslims and quit stereotyping our enemy, and quit believing these prejudices about our enemy, in order to be successful in any kind of counterterrorism policy we enact," Alexander said.

As for torture, it is immoral and the long-term implications of its use by the United States are "indescribably bad," he said. Already, official tolerance for cruelty is having effects back home, for example in the solitary confinement and indignities visited on Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing classified information to Wikileaks.

"It's punishment. It's clearly punitive. I think Bradley Manning may be one of the first cases where we see that the policies that were used against detainees in the war on terror can now be used by default on American citizens," said Alexander. "It wasn't a surprise to anyone who has studied torture that this migration could happen."

Published: Thursday, March 17, 2011