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Ex-Interrogators Say Human Connection, Not Torture, Yields Results
Eric Maddox, left, a former U.S. Army interrogator, questioned hundreds of Iraqis in Tikrit, and former Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander, who uses a pseudonym, developed the intelligence that led U.S. forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Ayla Dillard)

Ex-Interrogators Say Human Connection, Not Torture, Yields Results

In the national debate on whether the tactic of torture is warranted for the sake of national security, the experiences of the two former interrogators underscore the argument that torture is not an effective tool for unsealing secrets and getting at the truth.

Kevin Matthews Email KevinMatthews

I didn't need a water bucket, and I didn't need a towel.

UCLA Today

Information from U.S. military interrogations led to the capture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003 and to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born instigator of a campaign of suicide bombings and beheadings, in a 2006 airstrike inside Iraq.

The two interrogators who were most responsible for sealing those most-wanted fugitives' fates explained on Friday, April 24, to a Melnitz Hall audience how they did it and why torturing the people in their custody would never have gotten the same results. The event was sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and the School of Theater, Film and Television’s Program in Film, Television and Digital Media.

In the national debate on whether the tactic of torture is warranted for the sake of national security, the experiences of the two former interrogators underscore the argument that torture is not an effective tool for unsealing secrets and getting at the truth.

Over five weeks in Tikrit, Army Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, who has interrogated hundreds of Iraqis, identified and followed an enemy chain of command that led up to Hussein and ultimately to his underground hideout on Dec. 13, 2003. To get information at each link in that chain, Maddox said he had to win the trust of a detained informant and to convince that person that the interrogator would protect his loved ones.

"For him to trust me, imagine if I tortured the guy," said Maddox, adding, "Under no circumstances would torture work."

Maddox and another ex-interrogator, an Air Force major who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, agreed that photographs from Abu Ghraib prison became the prime recruiting tool for Al Qaeda from 2004, motivating some from outside the country to the fight with the Iraqi insurgency.

Anti-torture proponents are trying to combat the influence that fictional torture scenarios, as seen on TV, might have on young U.S. soldiers.

Anti-torture proponents are trying to combat the influence that fictional torture scenarios, as seen on TV, might have on young U.S. soldiers.

"When they saw these pictures of other Muslims being tortured and abused, that was enough to put them over the edge," Alexander said. The practical case against the torture of detainees, therefore, is that it "has cost us American lives."

Maddox and Alexander came to campus with David Danzig of the New York–based advocacy group Human Rights First. Danzig has made dozens of U.S. military contacts in order to organize opposition to torture. He has also launched an effort to combat the influence of dramatic torture scenarios in popular television shows on junior U.S. soldiers. At the UCLA event, he screened a short film in which real interrogators critiqued torture scenes depicted in "24," "Alias," "LOST" and other shows. Danzig and Human Rights First are working to convince Hollywood and television producers to tell the real stories of skilled military interrogators like Maddox and Alexander.

To do his job, Alexander said all he needed was "a chair and my brain and my heart, and that's it." In a reference to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, he added, "I didn't need a water bucket, and I didn't need a towel."

Getting results at an interrogation session essentially involves making a personal connection with the operative, according to Alexander. He reminded the audience that "hardened" Al Qaeda members are not produced in a factory.

"These are people who make decisions based on factors in their lives," Alexander said.

In one of the interviews that led to the discovery of Zarqawi's whereabouts, Alexander apologized to a Sunni imam called Abu Ali for American actions in Iraq. Three days earlier, the man had said he'd cut Alexander's throat if he could; but on the day of the apology Abu Ali cooperated by sharing the location of a safehouse for Al Qaeda bombers.

According to Alexander, Abu Ali blamed the United States for unleashing a Shiite militia that forced him from his home and killed a close friend, the sort of complaint Alexander would hear again and again. During the three days, Alexander discovered that the man also longed for reconciliation with Americans for the sake of his son and the future. So Alexander not only apologized, but appealed to those hopes.

Despite his position on torture, Maddox said U.S. interrogators who did torture should not face criminal prosecution as long as the military can learn from its mistakes. However, Alexander, who ran a team of interrogators, said that the more urgent issue is how to control young soldiers who've watched torture on television, but, as a rule, lacked experience with Muslims and Arabs.

"My concern is about setting a precedent that rule-breaking is okay," Alexander said.

Both Maddox and Alexander tell their stories in books published last year.

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