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Before the handshake was over, I sensed why Major Matthew Alexander would be an effective military interrogator. He’s serene. He had a firm handshake, a pleasant smile, and brown eyes that looked calmly into mine. He doesn’t pretend that he based interrogations on genuineness alone, but that trait was the bedrock on which his other techniques rested.

Before being shipped to Iraq as a military interrogator, he had been a criminal investigator with the Air Force. Because the Army was shorthanded on interrogators, he was sent to a six week course in interrogation and loaned to the Army, as part of an effort to track down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “the terrorist mastermind who allegedly personally beheaded Nicholas Berg, plotted the hotel bombings of 2005 in Amman, Jordan, and orchestrated numerous bombings of Shiite mosques.”

Alexander arrived in Iraq in 2006, charged specifically with gaining the intelligence necessary to track down al-Zarqawi. The point of his book, How to Break a Terrorist, is that he succeeded exactly because he built relationships and rapport with prisoners, because his behavior was legal, ethical, and non-coercive. He used a mixture of interrogation techniques that he had learned as a criminal investigator–for example, the one we’ve all seen on “Law and Order” and “The Closer” of separating suspects and offering a deal to the first one who agrees to cooperate–combined with techniques he learned in the interrogation course and with his understanding of Middle Eastern culture (knowledge he gained when he had been posted in Saudi Arabia).

I asked Major Alexander to give me an example of how he worked:

Alexander maintains that his treatment of prisoners is far more effective than, not to mention morally superior to, the torture that the Bush administration authorized. When I asked him how sincere was the apology he offered to his prisoner, he didn’t hesitate. “One hundred percent,” he said. He talked about the “horrific insensitivity” of Rumsfeld at the beginning of the war when Rummy dismissed the cruelty Shiites wreaked on Sunnis as just blowing off some steam.  Alexander truly felt his prisoner deserved an apology.

That sincerity didn’t mean, though, that he could be completely open with those he questioned. He said he had no qualms about lying to prisoners, adding that he kept that to a minimum, partly because getting caught in a lie destroys any trust that’s been built. But if a detainee said he was a married man with three children, Alexander would generally claim to be married and have children–even though he’s single. Such a lie would be part of building a relationship.

And he said that in Iraq, he lied more than he normally would have because he was working under time constraints that required him to obtain information as quickly as possible.

He insisted that, despite such lies, the apology he offered his prisoner was heartfelt. And, it was pragmatic, because finding common ground is more effective in interrogation work than torture is, both in the short term and the long term.

Short term, there’s no evidence, he says, that torture works faster. On the contrary, there is evidence that it slows down information gathering because it hardens the resolve of prisoners subjected to it. And even if it works–any technique will work on somebody–it harms us long term. U.S. use of torture in Iraq was the number one reason that foreign fighters arrived: they were outraged at our behavior and came to Iraq to fight evildoers. So any short term gains that might have resulted from torture were outweighed by long term losses.

When Alexander was on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said that we’re always hearing about the ticking time bomb! The major’s response was:

When I was in Iraq, we dealt with the ticking time bomb every day. People that we captured, they were behind suicide bombers. So, many of them, they had information right then and there that could’ve saved lives. But we knew if we resorted to torture to get that information, that al-Qaida would’ve used it as a recruiting tool.

Besides, the use of torture makes any future enemies we might have less willing to surrender. In the first and even second Iraq wars, soldiers surrendered fairly easily because they knew they’d be well treated. But in future conflicts, soldiers will be less willing to surrender and detainees will start out already hardened against us because of our reputation. As far as intelligence gathering, we’ll be starting in a hole.

The last reason Alexander cited for avoiding torture is that prospective coalition partners are going to be less willing to work with us because of all these negative long term effects.

I’ll have more about the interview with Major Alexander in the next posting. He was in St. Louis at the invitation of Amnesty International as part of a nationwide tour in which he is speaking out against torture. The Amnesty International website has links to several interviews he’s done, including Keith Olbermann, Brave New Studios, MSNBC, and Fox.