How Obama's Speech Makes Us Safer

07/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For those looking for a concrete example of how President Obama's speech in Cairo makes us safer, let me offer one. His quoting of the Quran was monumental in bridging the divide between Western and Muslim cultures and ensuring our cooperation against extremists.

While conducting interrogations of high-level Al Qaida leaders in Iraq, my team and I often sat down face-to-face with some of the most hardened terrorists -- the men behind the waves of suicide bombings. Instead of using waterboarding, we got to know our detainees and discovered that the key to securing cooperation starts with dialogue.

One of these men, a Sunni Imam caught red-handed blessing suicide bombers, went from telling me during our first meeting that "if he had a knife he would cut my throat" to cooperating in less than three days. Another man went from a high-ranking Al Qaida spiritual adviser to trusted informant.

Both detainee and interrogator have needs when they face each other in those cramped rooms. The interrogator needs intelligence information and the detainee needs knowledge about his predicament. That exchange of information in the interrogation room depends on cooperation, or negotiation. The process is expedited when we breakdown the misunderstandings between our cultures before we meet. Neither side benefits from stereotypes. It is only through cultural understanding that we can progress our conversations and find common ground to work together. The Anbar Awakening was the result of exactly this type of dialogue between company and field level Army and Marine commanders on the ground and Sunni tribal leaders.

President Obama's quoting of the Quran was monumentally important to dispelling the belief by some Muslims that Americans are prejudiced against Islam. I often brought my copy of the Quran into the interrogation room. It was the copy I have read and was given to me from a Saudi during a prior tour in the Middle East. By handling the Quran with respect and quoting from it, I was able to establish rapport very quickly with detainees. This was key to securing their cooperation and bringing them back from extremism to a middle ground where we could work together against Al Qaida.

In fact, it was exactly this type of approach that convinced a high-level Al Qaida spiritual advisor to sell out Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the notorious Jordanian terrorist and perhaps our biggest catch since 9/11.

This type of respect for Islam also undercuts Al Qaida's ability to recruit new fighters, also an important aspect of preventing future attacks. Dialogue and cultural understanding -- two important, effective tools for preventing terrorist attacks. The effects of the President's speech in Cairo will be measured in future American lives saved.