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How to Break a Terrorist, Matthew Alexander (2008)

I’ve spent the last few years compulsively researching illegal American interrogation practices between September 12, 2001 and June 12, 2008. (The latter date, I believe, represented the beginning of something of a new era, though certainly not the end of all malfeasance.) This has been a dispiriting project, to say the least. And so reading Alexander’s book was an extremely bizarre experience. The author, who writes under a pseudonym and with the help of a co-writer, was a military interrogator in Iraq in 2006. He portrays his experience as one in which almost all his colleagues had come, in the wake of Abu Ghraib, to completely repudiate “enhanced interrogation” techniques as unthinkably immoral and tactically counterproductive. A couple old dinosaurs who believe in control-and-dominate theories of interrogation remain in his unit, but they come across here as marginalized and cartoonish. According to Alexander, everyone in his unit knows, or soon comes to know, that cultural sensitivity, respect, and building rapport are the keys to intelligence gathering.

This view, of course, is true. However, I have a very hard time believing that this view was anywhere near conventional wisdom in 2006, the year President George W. Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which, among other things, sought to decriminalize violations of the Geneva Conventions committed by military interrogators. (This was the law that the Supreme Court overturned in 2008.)

I suspect Alexander is a decent guy who did try to interrogate Iraqi prisoners by legal and dignified means. But his book, which creates the false impression that the second the Abu Ghraib photos came out, military interrogators everywhere were instantly transformed from abusive Rambos to shrewd Sherlock Holmeses, is dangerously misleading. No prisoner in this book is shown to have experienced any form of physical coercion at all. No prolonged solitary confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, physical contact, subjection to noise, subjection to temperature extremes, deprivation of food or drink. Not even a hint. This is extremely hard to believe, especially since Alexander claims he was part of the team assigned to interrogate the high-level prisoners who eventually led American forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

I further suspect that there is some illuminating information in this book, but it’s impossible to tell what it might be, since it is submerged in a creaky artificial melodramatic tone, and a general pall of unbelievability.

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