The first time I taught a one-hour class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a 20-year-old student made it very clear that while he might be studying ethics, law and morality in school, it was practicalities that really concerned him.
"If we are kicking in doors in Iraq," the third year student -- known in West Point parlance as a "Cow" -- said, "and I find a guy who has a load of materials that could be used to build an IED in his home and explosive residue on his hands, I don't have time to do a by-the-book interview do I? I mean, lives are at stake and we will have minutes, not hours or days, to get the info we need."
The cadet's question touched off a debate that easily lasted through the hour, with students arguing that Abu Ghraib and other forms of torture should always be off limits because they are illegal and they have harmed the United States' larger strategic efforts, and others arguing that a soldier sometimes had to do "whatever it takes" to protect other soldiers from harm.
One argument that the class did not spend much time considering was the idea that legal, humane, interrogation techniques may, in fact, yield more accurate information faster.
A new book, Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist by Matthew Alexander -- an Air Force intelligence officer -- is a first person account of the successes (and failures) of one 2-man interrogation team that is called on to repeatedly interrogate Iraqis in their homes, and make intelligence assessments in 10 minutes or less.
The book is a case study in what can be accomplished by interrogators who rely on their brains, rather than their fists, to gather information quickly.
Alexander and his partner abhor the use of abuse to make detainees talk. At one point, for example, in the kitchen of an insurgent, he struggles to pry the fingers of an angry Special Forces captain off the throat of a suspect.
The captain's fingers fit almost all the way around Walid's neck and he squeezes. Instantly, Walid's neck turns red. I reach up and grab the Captain's wrist. I pull on it but it won't budge. He turns and glares with his other hand on his pistol. I pull again on his wrist. "I got this," I say.
Eventually Alexander prevails. But he observes, "If Walid had any thoughts of cooperating, they just evaporated. The Captain successfully reinforced why Walid has picked up arms against us."
Alexander and his partner use a dizzying array of legal tactics to make suspects talk. During our debate at West Point, the class agreed that even in situations where lives were in danger, it was best to begin an interrogation using these sorts of "humane" techniques. The argument in the class was over what to do if the first (or second) of these legal techniques does not work.
"If the humane methods don't work, that is when you might have to cross the line," one student argued. (The majority of the class strongly disagreed.)
But what is striking about Alexander is how quickly he abandons techniques that do not yield results in favour of other humane techniques that might. He is not restricted to one or two legal approaches.
"The best interrogators are one-third salesman, one-third dramatic actor, and one-third psychologist," he writes. "They are most able to adapt to the detainee's world - and then to transform it. I can become a father, a brother, a husband, or a friend... whatever it takes to convince a detainee to talk."
Over the course of his 275-page book, he pays a family he hopes will work with him; repeatedly lies to suspected terrorists about who he is and what he knows; soothingly speaks Arabic to the father of an insurgent and eventually convinces him to turn his son in; tampers with the phone of a suspected terrorist to catch him in a lie; tricks a high ranking Al Qaeda operative into ordering his daughter to hand over an important document, etc.
"Words like 'soft' and 'hard' mean nothing to me," Alexander writes. "Either an interrogation yields accurate and timely intelligence or it doesn't."
This is a good read for those who are interested in learning more about how interrogation actually happens in the field, and for those who are interested in hearing another perspective on the war in Iraq.
The action -- and there is a lot of it -- centers around Alexander and his team's pursuit of Zafar, a mysterious Al Qaeda operative. Alexander peppers his prose with the sort of earthy metaphors that might make Dan Rather proud. For example, in Alexander's Iraq, its not just dark, "it's darker than 3-feet up a bull's ass."
All this makes for a fun and informative read. I just hope that some of the students I once taught at West Point have a chance to pick it up.
David Danzig is a senior advisor to Human Rights First.