Moral Low Ground

US Government

‘The Moral High Ground’: Former U.S. Military Interrogator Says Torture DELAYED bin Laden’s Capture

There’s been a lot of self-congratulatory, chest-puffing told-ya-so-ism on the part of leading conservative politicians and pundits who are triumphantly claiming that Osama bin Laden’s death would not have been possible without the use of torture. Of course, they still refuse to use the word torture to describe their “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, which any sane and informed individual knows is most certainly torture. But I digress. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that torture wasn’t an essential element in the hunt for bin Laden, witness these disturbing statements from top conservatives:

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the Congressional Homeland Security Committee: “Osama bin Laden would not have been captured and killed if it were not for the initial information we got from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after he was waterboarded.”

Rep. Steve King (R-IA): “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?”

Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush: “I think the odds the tools that President Bush put into place– GITMO, rendition, enhanced interrogation… obviously served his successor quite well.”

The only problem is, those men weren’t there when interrogations took place. Matthew Alexander, however, was. He was a senior US military interrogator who conducted or oversaw 1,300 interrogations in Iraq. His work led to the capture of several al-Qaeda leaders. Alexander sat down with Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman and strongly refuted the notion that torture led to bin Laden’s death.

“We don’t know all the details,” Alexander began. “One of the things that people aren’t talking about is the fact that one of the people that was confronted with this information that bin Laden had a courier is Skaykh al-Libi, who was held in a CIA secret prison and was tortured and who gave his CIA interrogators the name of the courier as being Maulawi Jan. And the CIA chased down that information and found out that person didn’t exist, that al-Libi had lied. And nobody is talking about the fact that al-Libi caused us to waste resources and time by chasing a false lead because he was tortured.”

“The other thing that’s being left out of this conversation is the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed certainly knew the real name of the courier, whose nom de guerre or nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had to have known his real name or at least how to find him, a location that we might look, but he never gave up that information. And so, what we’re seeing is that waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques, just like professional interrogators have been saying for years, always result in either limited information, false information or no information.”

Alexander says torture actually hindered the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“When you look at the use of waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques in the case of the trail of evidence that leads to Osama bin Laden, what you find is, time and time again, it slows down the chase. In 2003, when we—or ’02, when we have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we have the person most likely to be able to lead us to bin Laden, and yet we don’t get to him until 2011. You know, by any interrogation standard, eight years is a long time to not get information from people, and that’s probably directly related to the fact that he was waterboarded 183 times.”

“The other piece of the story that we don’t know yet is we don’t know how the CIA learned the real family name of the courier, who again, his nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. And we don’t know how the CIA got his real family name, which really was the key piece of information that led us to be able to monitor phone calls and emails and discover his first name, his full name, which led to us finding him and then him leading us to the compound. So, until we have that information, which we don’t even know if it came from interrogations or if it came from a source, then we really don’t have a complete picture of how we got to bin Laden.”

Alexander is convinced that not torturing suspected terrorists gets better results than employing “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

“Non-coercive techniques, time and time again, proved extremely effective against al-Qaeda, especially techniques that came from law enforcement that were based on rapport building.”

Even if torture did somehow prove to be 100% effective, Alexander still says he would never resort to it.

“I don’t torture because it doesn’t work. I don’t torture, because it’s immoral, and it’s against the law, and it’s inconsistent with my oath of office, in which I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. And it’s also inconsistent with American principles. So, my primary argument against torture is one of morality, not one of efficacy.”

“You know, if torture did work and we could say it worked 100 percent of the time, I still wouldn’t use it. The U.S. Army Infantry, when it goes out into battle and it faces resistance, it doesn’t come back and ask for the permission to use chemical weapons. I mean, chemical weapons are extremely effective—we could say almost 100 percent effective. And yet, we don’t use them. But we make this—carve out this special space for interrogators and say that, well, they’re different, so they can violate the laws of war if they face obstacles.”

“And that’s an insult to American interrogators, who are more than capable of defeating our enemies and al-Qaeda in the battle of wits in the interrogation room. And American interrogators have proven this time and time again, from World War II through Vietnam, through Panama, through the First Gulf War. And let’s go back to the successes of American interrogators. You know, American interrogators found Saddam Hussein without using torture. We found and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda Iraq, which helped turn the Iraq war, without using torture. And numerous other leaders that we have found and captured—another guy named Zafar, that I describe in my book—all these successes have come without the use of torture.”

What’s more, Alexander calls US torture “al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.”

“When I was in Iraq, I oversaw the interrogations of foreign fighters. And those foreign fighters, the majority of them, said, time and time again, the reason they had come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of detainees at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. And this is not my opinion. The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. And they were briefed, every interrogator who arrived there, that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.”

“And remember, these foreign fighters that came to Iraq, they made up 90 percent of the suicide bombers. They killed hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers. And so, this policy of torture and abuse did not make America safer. What it did was it caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands of American soldiers.”

“And one thing you’ll never hear the torture supporters talk about… is the long-term negative consequences of torture. They won’t talk about the fact that al-Qaeda uses it to recruit. They won’t talk about the fact that future Americans are going to be subjected to the same techniques by future enemies using our own actions as justification. They’re not going to talk about the fact that it makes detainees more resistant to interrogations as soon as they walked in the interrogation room, because they see us all as torturers.”

Plus, Alexander says any interrogator worth his or her salt wouldn’t need to torture to get results.

“Any good interrogator who’s skilled in his profession understands the culture of the people he’s interrogating, respects that culture, uses it to his advantage by respecting it, knows that they don’t need torture to accomplish their mission.”

“I’m convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse,” he concluded.

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  1. Reggie Greene / The LogisticianMay 14, 2011 at 7:35 amReply

    Although I neither have first-hand experience nor research to support this notion, I strongly suspect that since time immemorial, certain forces of EVERY state have used tactics which clearly constituted torture (no matter how defined) and shocked the conscience, although many (for various reasons) have chosen not to do so openly.

    However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.
    It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.

    • Brett WilkinsMay 14, 2011 at 9:26 amReplyAuthor

      The “everyone else did it” argument loses its validity sometime in elementary school. Hopefully that “public introspection” is good enough, but somehow I doubt it.

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