Three Words of Omission When It Comes to Torture

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By Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator

Matthew Alexander

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden last month in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the torture supporters have been out in full force to credit the success to Bush Administration policies such as torture.

Retired General Michael Hayden wrote in the Wall Street Journal that to deny that waterboarding provided important intelligence information is the equivalent of being a birther.  And Retired Army Major General Patrick Brady, a Medal of Honor Recipient from Vietnam, argued that waterboarders are heroes in a recent Op-Ed in the San Antonio online forum.  They join the ranks of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Marc Thiessen, Michael Mukasey, and, of course, the former President himself, George W. Bush.

But I challenge you to search all the articles and interviews done by these men for three key phrases: 1) World War II interrogators, 2) Long-Term, and 3) George Washington.  You won’t find them.  And there’s a reason why.

First, they won’t once mention that we fought two adversaries during World War II, both infinitely more capable than Al Qaeda, and successfully defeated both without using torture.  In fact, it was just the opposite that worked (empathy) against the most-hardened enemies, both Nazi and Japanese.

What the torture apologists don’t want you to know is that it CAN be done without torture.  They want us to believe that American interrogators are not as smart as their Al Qaeda opponents.  In essence, they want to dumb down America.  Since when do we admit that we can’t defeat our enemies in the battle of wits in the interrogation booth?  Do these torture supporters have such little respect for American interrogators that they would assume their failure?

Just ask experienced interrogators who have successfully conducted interrogations against high-ranking enemies going back to World War II, Vietnam, Panama, and the First Gulf War.  Ask interrogators for an opinion, not these sadistic torture supporters who would have us use the methods of our enemies and lower our own moral standards in the process.

We should ask men like Peter Weiss, a World War II veteran who helped interrogate high-ranking Nazis, or Colonel Stuart Herrington, perhaps the Army’s most successful interrogator in Vietnam who achieved numerous successes without torture.

Or we could ask Colonel Steve Kleinman who has been conducting intelligence and interrogation operations going back to the Panama War and is one of the foremost experts on the science behind interrogations.

Or ask Eric Maddox, the Army interrogator who located Saddam Hussein (without torture).

Or consider my team of interrogators in Iraq, who located Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, using rapport-building techniques.

Or Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who successfully interrogated Abu Zubayda before the CIA whisked him away to a torture chamber.

Not a single one of us professional interrogators endorses torture.

The second phrase you’ll never see in these torture supporter articles is “Long-Term.”  That’s because they don’t want to admit the hard fact that the long-term consequences far outweigh any short-term gains.  The most damning long-term consequence has been the fact that Al Qaeda used our torture of detainees as their number one recruiting tool which resulted in thousands of foreign fighters pouring into Iraq and killing American soldiers in droves.  The torture enthusiasts don’t want you to know that they caused the deaths of our own men and women in uniform.

The last phrase you’ll never hear from the mouths of these torture supporters is George Washington, but it’s the first we should consider.  Washington’s argument was never one of efficacy, which the torture supporters want us to believe this is about. Consider General Brady’s argument: we torture because it saves the lives of our children (of course, some of our children serve in the Armed Forces and were killed in Iraq because of torture, as evidenced above, but let’s forget about that for a second).

Brady forgets that the first and most important argument against torture is a moral one.  So said General George Washington during The Revolutionary War when he forbid his troops from using it, recognizing that it was incompatible with the principles upon which he wanted to build a country.  If our only arguments for the use of tactics or weapons in a war were effectiveness, we’d still be using mustard gas and flamethrowers.  But note that the torture supporters never argue for these things.  They want us to forget that there are laws of war and that President Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture which forbids torture without exception.

As a former interrogator I was taught to detect deception and my foremost tool for doing so was always omission – you can tell more by what one doesn’t say than by what they do.  And that’s why these three key phrases (World War II interrogators, Long-Term, and George Washington) will always be glaring omissions and a glaring failure of the arguments for torture.

Note: If you stand against torture, then I ask you to stand together with the victims of torture.  Maher Arar was tortured by the Syrian government after being extradited there by the United States.  Join the campaign to urge the US Government to admit its complicity in the torture of Maher Arar, issue an official apology, and pay compensation.

Matthew Alexander is a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq leading to the capture of numerous terrorist leaders.  His latest book is Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.  Alexander is currently a Fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations.

This post is part of our 2011 Torture Awareness Month series

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30 thoughts on “Three Words of Omission When It Comes to Torture

  1. Yes, thank you for telling your story. We as Americans are better than this. It seems that we're more concerned as a nation as to what the latest gossip is in the tabloids rather than the real-world consequences of our policies and actions, good or bad.

  2. Well-spoken, sir. Keep on keepin' on with building the moral case against torture!

  3. I applaud your words and you for writing this. Your presentation of the issue is so clear, intelligent, well-thought-out…I am nodding my head and saying 'amen' and wishing I could shake your hand.
    What's sad to me is that many followers of Jesus–of whom I am one–see no problem with torture, that 'it's the terrorist's life or our lives' and so therefore the end justifies the means, in their thinking. Yet this is so far from what Jesus taught.
    Thank you especially for pointing out the long-term harm created by torture.

  4. Yes, thank you for telling your story. We as Americans are better than this. It seems that we’re more concerned as a nation as to what the latest gossip is in the tabloids rather than the real-world consequences of our policies and actions, good or bad.

  5. Well-spoken, sir. Keep on keepin’ on with building the moral case against torture!

  6. I applaud your words and you for writing this. Your presentation of the issue is so clear, intelligent, well-thought-out…I am nodding my head and saying ‘amen’ and wishing I could shake your hand.
    What’s sad to me is that many followers of Jesus–of whom I am one–see no problem with torture, that ‘it’s the terrorist’s life or our lives’ and so therefore the end justifies the means, in their thinking. Yet this is so far from what Jesus taught.
    Thank you especially for pointing out the long-term harm created by torture.

  7. Matthew Alexander:

    One very important point you omitted to mention. Torture victim Maher Arar was falsely accused. This is beyond question.

    The right wing conservative Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper himself has said Maher Arar had no connection to extremism or terrorism of any kind and apologized to him personally, ( and gave him a 10 million dollar check) calling him an innocent man nearly tortured almost to death by Syria based on faulty Canadian and American intelligence. All the other individuals you mentioned in your article, i.e. WWII Nazis, Saddam Husein, Al Qeda terrorist murders etc. unlike Maher Arar, were all in fact guilty, guilty, guilty, war criminals of the worst kinds.

    Maybe torture is an absolute moral wrong in all cases, as you argue, even in the case of the evil Nazis who themselves happily tortured others when they had a chance or Al Qeda monsters who may be well trained to easily resist all your standard interrogation techniques and trickery yet be still concealing critical information about future planned mass murder atrocities to be committed against innocent civilians.

    But no way, no how, could it ever justified in any way ever to take an actually innocent person like Maher Arar, extraordinarily rendition him over to the Syrians for tortures that make Gitmo and water boarding seem mild by comparison, all based on a mistake and through no fault of his own as he never did anything to anyone to even slightly deserve what happened to him.

  8. Matthew Alexander:

    One very important point you omitted to mention. Torture victim Maher Arar was falsely accused. This is beyond question.

    The right wing conservative Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper himself has said Maher Arar had no connection to extremism or terrorism of any kind and apologized to him personally, ( and gave him a 10 million dollar check) calling him an innocent man nearly tortured almost to death by Syria based on faulty Canadian and American intelligence. All the other individuals you mentioned in your article, i.e. WWII Nazis, Saddam Husein, Al Qeda terrorist murders etc. unlike Maher Arar, were all in fact guilty, guilty, guilty, war criminals of the worst kinds.

    Maybe torture is an absolute moral wrong in all cases, as you argue, even in the case of the evil Nazis who themselves happily tortured others when they had a chance or Al Qeda monsters who may be well trained to easily resist all your standard interrogation techniques and trickery yet be still concealing critical information about future planned mass murder atrocities to be committed against innocent civilians.

    But no way, no how, could it ever justified in any way ever to take an actually innocent person like Maher Arar, extraordinarily rendition him over to the Syrians for tortures that make Gitmo and water boarding seem mild by comparison, all based on a mistake and through no fault of his own as he never did anything to anyone to even slightly deserve what happened to him.

  9. I posted a short piece this week on OpEdNews about the immorality of US-sponsored torture :
    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Torture-Awarenes

    Alexander is absolutely right: millions upon millions of dollars spent on "modern" intelligence gathering methods, and we resort to something used in the middle ages???? It would be ludicrous if it were not so repulsive and abhorrent.

    And when the enemy captures our service men and women, then what protections to they have?

  10. I posted a short piece this week on OpEdNews about the immorality of US-sponsored torture :
    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Torture-Awarenes

    Alexander is absolutely right: millions upon millions of dollars spent on "modern" intelligence gathering methods, and we resort to something used in the middle ages???? It would be ludicrous if it were not so repulsive and abhorrent.

    And when the enemy captures our service men and women, then what protections to they have?

  11. I posted a short piece this week on OpEdNews about the immorality of US-sponsored torture :
    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Torture-Awarenes

    Alexander is absolutely right: millions upon millions of dollars spent on "modern" intelligence gathering methods, and we resort to something used in the middle ages???? It would be ludicrous if it were not so repulsive and abhorrent.

    And when the enemy captures our service men and women, then what protections to they have?

  12. I salute you and I wholeheartedly agree with you Thank you for speaking out about the moral issue.

  13. I posted a short piece this week on OpEdNews about the immorality of US-sponsored torture :

    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Torture-Awareness-Month-by-Barbara-Quintilian-110605-908.html

    Alexander is absolutely right: millions upon millions of dollars spent on “modern” intelligence gathering methods, and we resort to something used in the middle ages???? It would be ludicrous if it were not so repulsive and abhorrent.

    And when the enemy captures our service men and women, then what protections to they have?

  14. I salute you and I wholeheartedly agree with you Thank you for speaking out about the moral issue.

  15. Thanks for all the replies. I agree with judonimh that Arar is completely innocent, which makes his case all the stronger for an official apology and compensation.

  16. Thanks for all the replies. I agree with judonimh that Arar is completely innocent, which makes his case all the stronger for an official apology and compensation.

  17. Judonimh merely repeats the obvious when he says Arar is innocent.

    He uses this point to indirectly "justify" the torture of the allegedly "guilty" … which is exactly what Arar was deemed to be by what Judonimh calls faulty intel.

    Isn't this a simple restoration of torture itself ?

  18. Judonimh merely repeats the obvious when he says Arar is innocent.

    He uses this point to indirectly “justify” the torture of the allegedly “guilty” … which is exactly what Arar was deemed to be by what Judonimh calls faulty intel.

    Isn’t this a simple restoration of torture itself ?

  19. "Innocence" is used differently by different people.

    Some are like Amnesty.

    They use "innocence" to highlight injustice.

    Others use innocence to criminalize & monsterize other persons, entire peoples.

    They use "innocence" to dehistoricize an issue.

    In the question of torture there is no question of innocence or guilt.

    For torture is not about the captive, but the System.

    You can't preconditionalize torture & say where it's "applicable".

    You can't contextualize torture & say where it is "necessary".

    You can't institutionalize torture & say where it is "fundamental".

    You can't sanitize torture & say where it is "moral".

    In torture there is no law, & no excuse.

    You can't plead you got the wrong result by "faulty intelligence".

    No law will excuse you or accept your excuses.

    The question of "faulty intelligence" in today's widening war is no longer a "technical" question.

    It is a political question of state policy toward occupied peoples, occupied worlds.

    It is a cultural question of racial profiling & stereotyping.

    It is a mass – psychosistic question of fear & loathing of the "Other".

    In torture there is no degree.

    You can't say how much is torture & how much isn't.

    The difference is in you, or it isn't.

    If you don't know it, you are your own captor, your own captive.

    If you invade & occupy other people's lands, your presence is your System, already a daily rite & regimen of torture for them.

    Technical torture is then only an extension of yourself.

    What you are doing to the land is what you do to a man.

  20. “Innocence” is used differently by different people.

    Some are like Amnesty.

    They use “innocence” to highlight injustice.

    Others use innocence to criminalize & monsterize other persons, entire peoples.

    They use “innocence” to dehistoricize an issue.

    In the question of torture there is no question of innocence or guilt.

    For torture is not about the captive, but the System.

    You can’t preconditionalize torture & say where it’s “applicable”.

    You can’t contextualize torture & say where it is “necessary”.

    You can’t institutionalize torture & say where it is “fundamental”.

    You can’t sanitize torture & say where it is “moral”.

    In torture there is no law, & no excuse.

    You can’t plead you got the wrong result by “faulty intelligence”.

    No law will excuse you or accept your excuses.

    The question of “faulty intelligence” in today’s widening war is no longer a “technical” question.

    It is a political question of state policy toward occupied peoples, occupied worlds.

    It is a cultural question of racial profiling & stereotyping.

    It is a mass – psychosistic question of fear & loathing of the “Other”.

    In torture there is no degree.

    You can’t say how much is torture & how much isn’t.

    The difference is in you, or it isn’t.

    If you don’t know it, you are your own captor, your own captive.

    If you invade & occupy other people’s lands, your presence is your System, already a daily rite & regimen of torture for them.

    Technical torture is then only an extension of yourself.

    What you are doing to the land is what you do to a man.