AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to some larger issues, this very important point that you make that you believe that more than 3,000 US soldiers were killed in Iraq—I mean, this is a huge number—because of torture, because of US practices of torture. Explain what you mean.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Well, you know, when I was in Iraq, we routinely handled foreign fighters, who we would capture. Many of—several of them had been scheduled to be suicide bombers, and we had captured them before they carried out their missions.
AMY GOODMAN: Coming from where?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: They came from all over the area. They came from Yemen. They came from northern Africa. They came from Saudi. All over the place. And the number one reason these foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq was routinely because of Abu Ghraib, because of Guantanamo Bay, because of torture practices.
In their eyes, they see us as not living up to the ideals that we have prescribed to. You know, we say that we represent freedom, liberty and justice. But when we torture people, we’re not living up to those ideals. And it’s a huge incentive for them to join al-Qaeda.
You also have to kind of put this in the context of Arab culture and Muslim culture and how important shame, the role of shame in that culture. And when we torture people, we bring a tremendous amount of shame on them. And so, it is a huge motivator for these people to join al-Qaeda and come to Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the pressure, I guess you could say the peer pressure, for you to torture and how you decided to follow the approach you did.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yeah, you know, torture, it’s so narrowly or broadly defined depending on who you’re talking to these days. I would say torture, to me, is just unethical behavior. And you can do things that are legal, within the rules, that are unethical. And so, I just know, me, by my gut feeling, based on the principles that I was raised on, you know, that my parents gave to me, that there’s things I’ll never do, because I know it feels wrong and it is wrong. And so, you know, others felt comfortable either pushing all the way up to the limits and doing things that were unethical, but were legal, or breaking the rules. I felt that was not something I was ever going to do and I wasn’t going to allow my team to do.
I think what’s more important at this point is we know that torture has cost us American lives. We know that it’s ineffective. And we know that it’s wrong, and it’s damaged our image. I think, you know, for me as a military officer, my job isn’t to identify broken wheels, it’s to fix them. And so, the approach that I took and that I talk about in the book is, how do we move forward? You know, we’re given this choice of either terrorist attacks or torture. But maybe there’s a third way. Maybe there’s a better way to do interrogations that has nothing to do with torture. And in the book, I describe the process of coming up with these new ways and how my team, together, we were able to come up with the new methods.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion and also talk with Scott Horton and who should be held responsible for the torture practices the government has been involved with, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib and beyond. Matthew Alexander is our guest. It’s not his name, but it’s the name he’s chosen. It is the name on his book, How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue with Matthew Alexander, who’s written the book How to Break a Terrorist. We’re also joined by Scott Horton, an attorney who specializes in international law and human rights. He’s written extensively about prisoner abuse in Iraq. He’s the legal affairs contributor to Harper’s magazine and writes the blog “No Comment.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Scott Horton. As you listened to Matthew Alexander lay out his story, it’s certainly a different approach than we’ve gotten out of many of the interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and other places.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, this is obviously a very important book and an important account for many reasons. I think, one, it really demonstrates the integrity and the effectiveness of traditional American military values and techniques. It shows that they work, and they harvest results. The pinpointing of Zarqawi was certainly one of the two or three most important intelligence breakthroughs in the course of this entire war effort. So that’s, I think, a very, very striking point.
But second, our discussion about torture and the introduction of torture, to date, has really focused on events that happened at Abu Ghraib, things that happened at Guantanamo, a prominent memorandum signed by the Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, early on. But I understood instantly, when I heard his account about the pushback he got from the Department of Defense, why. And that’s because his account breaks extremely important new ground. It shows us that there is an entire another channel in which torture developed, and that’s inside of the Special Operations Command.
And by the information I’ve collected, which I think this account confirms, that goes back to the beginning of the conflict, 2002. Special Operations Command set up, operated essentially as a personal fiefdom by Dr. Stephen Cambone, who was the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. And Dr. Cambone was authorizing taking the gloves off, using brutal methods, using torture. And that happened way before the Justice Department got involved, memoranda were written, everything else.
Now, why is that significant? This timeline is very, very important, because it shows that the use of torture and torture techniques comes much earlier than the crafting of the torture memoranda and the Justice Department, the approval process. And that then shows, in turn, that these memoranda were written after the fact in an effort to protect people who had already engaged and implemented this policy. So this is a bombshell, in fact.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Alexander, did you see memoranda? Did you see memos posted about what you could do?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Yes. I mean, there was some confusion amongst all interrogators, at some point, about what was allowed and not allowed, because at one point, what was allowed in Guantanamo Bay was not allowed in Iraq. And I had interrogators on my team who had come from Guantanamo Bay, and things that they were allowed or not allowed to do there were allowed or not allowed in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: For example, dogs.
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: Dogs were not allowed. I know they were allowed at one point at Guantanamo Bay. But by the time I arrived in Iraq in early 2006, dogs were definitely outlawed.
But let me give you another example. Good cop, bad cop, which is—you know, it’s a technique that we use all the time in the criminal investigative world. It’s an effective techniques. But it wasn’t allowed in Iraq for a long time, although it was allowed as an enhanced interrogation technique in Guantanamo Bay. So this—
AMY GOODMAN: Why wasn’t it allowed in Iraq? Because they didn’t want the good cop?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: You know, I’ve never gotten a good explanation about why we weren’t allowed to use good cop, bad cop. You know, if it’s torture, then why do we use it in criminal interrogations? It’s not. And I think it more has to do with the fact that there wasn’t a uniform policy from the beginning for all interrogators that applied across all theaters, which there should have been.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, your latest piece in Harper’s magazine, “Justice After Bush: Prosecuting an Outlaw Administration”—you think President Bush on down should be prosecuted?
SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think we have to start with a proper investigation before we reach conclusions about who should be prosecuted and for what crimes. I think there’s simply no question but that serious criminal conduct occurred. And, in fact, we’ve had prosecutions already. I mean, we can count seventeen NCOs, so it’s grunts at the bottom of the military food chain who have been prosecuted for this abuse. There has been no accountability, however, for those who made policy. And I think as a matter of proper administration of criminal justice, it’s the policymakers who should most be held to account.
So the first step is to establish all the facts and establish them carefully and calmly. Who took what decisions when? Security classifications had been wielded very effectively to obscure much of what went on. I think, you know, Matthew’s statements make that clear, and the redactions in his book make that clear. In particular, we know these things were going on inside the Special Operations Command, and security classifications were used to keep that entire tale secret, even secret from congressional oversight committees that attempted to probe into it. So the answer here, I think, is for President-elect Obama to appoint a presidential commission of inquiry, like the Rockefeller Commission, or a hybrid presidential—
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the Rockefeller Commission?
SCOTT HORTON: The Rockefeller Commission was appointed to look into criminal conduct within the CIA in 1975, the same things that the Church Committee was looking into. Or something like the 9/11 Commission, which is a hybrid congressional-presidential commission, and fill it with eminent persons, give it a clear mandate, and let them get to the bottom of the facts. When the facts are established—and that’s a process that I’m convinced would take a couple of years—then we can deal with the question of prosecutions.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, has any US official ever been prosecuted for torture?
SCOTT HORTON: We’ve had military officers who have been prosecuted for torture twice: in 1903 and in 1968. Both of those cases involved waterboarding. And we had camp commanders during the Korean conflict who were court-martialed and punished for abuse of detainees. So the answer is yes, but higher-level policymakers, no. But senior military officials, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Obama officials, advisers to Obama, have said that he is unlikely to go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations. And then there’s the question of President Bush, whether he would issue any kind of pre-emptive pardons.
SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s an AP report, and the AP report relies on two sources, and I believe one of those sources is John O. Brennan, who was the chief of staff to Mr. Tenet, who would of course be a target of such an investigation, so it’s easy to understand why he would say Obama won’t do it. I’m told—
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, he was head—he is head of the transition team on intelligence, but has taken himself out of the running.
SCOTT HORTON: I think that’s correct. And I’m told by the Obama transition team that no decision has been taken on this issue, nor is there any particular rush or need to take a decision before January 20th. In fact, I think there’s an important piece they’re waiting to see play out, and that is whether President Bush is going to issue a pre-emptive class-based pardon. And I think there’s a lot of speculation he’ll do it.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?
SCOTT HORTON: The President, before he leaves office, may very well—and if he does it, I think it will be on his last day, on the way out—issue a pardon to all those who were involved in the formation and implementation of his enhanced interrogation program, what he refers to affectionately as “my program.”
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is from Reuters. It says that ex-generals will be going to Washington to urge Obama to take action on the torture issue. They’re saying Barack Obama should act, from the moment of his inauguration, to restore US image, battered by allegations of torturing terrorism suspects. They’re planning to press their case with the President-elect’s transition team in Washington, about a dozen retired generals and admirals expected to meet with his team saying that they’re going to offer a list of anti-torture principles, including some that could be implemented immediately. Matthew Alexander, do you know about this?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I’ve heard of this. And there’s not just retired generals; there’s people within the military who have stood up. There’s people who stood up with me in Iraq and said no to torture and that they wouldn’t do or participate in certain things. Colonel Steve Kleinman, who is probably the most senior officer we have in the military who has been trained as an interrogator, has spoken before Congress several times. And his story is also told in Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side, about how he was sent to Iraq to teach interrogators how to use SERE techniques.
AMY GOODMAN: Psychologist—isn’t Kleinman a psychologist?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: SERE techniques are the evasion and resistance techniques that we teach our own troops how to resist against interrogations. And he was sent to Iraq and told to teach interrogators how to use these as torture weapons, and he refused to do so. So the change, I think, has come from people within the military who have stood up and said, “No, this is against American principles.”
AMY GOODMAN: Were you subjected to SERE techniques? I mean, did you go through that training?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I did go through SERE training. And I remember this moment I’ll never forget at the end of SERE training.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I was in Spokane, Washington. It was very cold. It was the first week of February, subzero temperatures. And it’s very challenging training. You know, it’s a prisoner of war environment. And at the end of the training, I remember, we stood in formation, and we were very exhausted, and they played the national anthem. And afterwards, an instructor gave a speech, and he told us about how some American prisoners of war in Korea had been tortured to death and refused to give up information. And I remember taking great pride in the fact that our country did not torture, that we did not resort to such practices. And that’s why I felt such an obligation to write this book and to get the word out that we’ve got to return to that. We’ve got to return to a place where we do not conduct torture in any organization within our government.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of torture has raged in the association of psychologists, the American Psychological Association, psychologist participation. Did you work with psychologists?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: We had psychologists. They did not advise on the tactics or techniques that we should be using for interrogation. They actually were there for the safety of the detainees, to ensure that if someone—one of the detainees started to experience problems mentally, that we could identify that and get them the appropriate help.
AMY GOODMAN: Who do you believe should be held accountable?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I can’t make judgments about accountability. I mean, I’m a soldier, and ultimately my job is to fix and make better our processes that help us defend our nation. You know, the accountability finger for torture, I think, you know, it is a leadership issue. I think we set examples from the top down, and our troops follow those. But at the same time, I think all the troops do have training to know what’s right and wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think prosecution of those who crossed the line would help people understand what’s right and wrong?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I would say that if it was an interrogator who had crossed the line, they certainly would be prosecuted.
AMY GOODMAN: If it was an official?
MATTHEW ALEXANDER: If they crossed the line and broke the law, yes, I think they should be held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that should go right on up to President Bush?MATTHEW ALEXANDER: I think it should go to anybody who breaks the law. I don’t think the law—I think the history of the United States has proven, you know, that we impeach and try anybody who breaks the law. It’s not really for me to decide who has broken the law or who hasn’t. What I know is that we’ve got to change the system to do a better job of interrogating.