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How They Cracked Zazi

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The feds cracked Najibullah Zazi without laying a hand on him, according to most news accounts.

But some people still wonder if the rough stuff would have worked better -- if only to make sure he gave it all up.

They've got to turn off their TVs.

Today I asked two veteran counterterrorism interrogators to take me inside the room when Zazi, the erstwhile New York street peddler- turned-alleged linchpin of a countrywide terrorist plot, was being questioned.

These guys -- one from the FBI, and one an Air Force interrogator who mentally sparred with al Qaeda suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are the real deal. They've spent years eyeball-to-eyeball with hardcore terrorists and assorted other psychopaths, breaking them down.

Neither of them was in the room when the FBI cracked Zazi in Denver two weeks ago. But the techniques used to peel the 25-year-old Afghan immigrant like an avocado aren't a mystery, either.

Here's Joseph Navarro, veteran FBI counterterrorism interrogator and author of "Hunting Terrorists: A Look at the Psychopathology of Terrorists":

"The bureau would have established rapport with the guy, attending to his needs and starting a dialogue," says Navarro, whose career was launched stalking FALN terrorists in Puerto Rico in 1981.

"Because most of these guys were narcissists," he says of such quarry, "there is not much to do but stroke their egos, be amazed at how clever they are, and let them talk."

And, he says, "They all talked."

I asked Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym for a 14-year Air Force criminal investigator who interrogated al Qaeda and insurgent suspects in Baghdad and the U.S. base at Bahgram in Afghanistan, to elaborate on techniques that probably were used on Zazi.

They will sound familiar to anyone who grew up watching Dragnet -- but not "24," where Jack Bauer shoots terrorists in the leg to get them talking.

"I would assume that the interrogators would have used a 'We Know All,' or 'Futility' approach," Alexander said, " based on the amount of physical evidence that they collected prior to Zazi's detention."

"It would make the most sense, given the large amount of evidence they had," added Alexander, who conducted more than 300 interrogations and supervised over a thousand more during three wars, winning a Bronze Star in 2006.

"The 'We Know All' approach," he said, "is exactly that: The interrogator tells the detainee that they already know everything and that it is futile to resist and that the detainee's best bet is to cooperate and then a judge (or jury) might show them leniency (no promises, however)."

"'Futility,'" he added, "is really just a continuation of the same approach -- no reason to resist because the situation is futile.

"There are other methods, however, that they could have used."

"For instance, they could have used an 'Establish Your Identity' approach and accused Zazi of being higher than he actually is within Al Qaeda.

"That would be an attempt to get him to describe exactly his role in order to disprove the allegation that he is a high-level leader. "

The way Alexander talks about it, interrogators have more tricks than a Countrywide mortgage broker.

And in the end, they're just as effective, not to mention a lot less painful.

Last December the retired major wrote a book on it, "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq."

"Honestly, the amount of legal, non-coercive options for interrogation approaches in a case like this [Zazi] are almost endless," Alexander said.

"What would have been difficult is balancing the need to get a confession for legal prosecution, versus obtaining intelligence information that could prevent a future terrorist attack."

Harsh interrogation boosters, most recently former Vice President Cheney's daughter Liz, a high State Department official in the Bush administration, harp on the need for rapid intelligence extraction over gathering evidence, arguing that saving lives is more important than prosecuting terrorists.

Even some liberals have begun to crack, fretting that Zazi might still possess "ticking bomb" information that requires "harder" methods.

But that assumes "harder" methods produce more and better information, counters Navarro.

"They associate chatter with the truth and that is totally wrong," he told me.

But, I asked, if you don't at least knock a guy around, how do you know a suspect isn't holding something back?

"Everyone will always hold something back," Navarro said. "But we want cooperation, not coercion."

"The tortured, as the Gestapo learned, will also hold back," he said.