Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Matthew Alexander Headshot

The Next Generation of American Interrogators

Posted: Updated:

I recently had the honor of speaking to a graduating class of U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard interrogators at Fort Devins, Massachusetts. After speaking to the students and instructors, I'm more convinced than ever that Americans are more than capable of successfully conducting interrogations without breaking the law or sacrificing our principles.

At one point during my discussion with the students, an instructor had a difference in opinion with me over the use of an interrogation approach from the Army Field Manual. He had significantly more experience. What ensued was a discussion that interrogators and their superiors should have had eight years ago -- what legal, non-coercive methods are best to use in different situations and how those approaches can be adapted or improved without violating U.S. or International Law. This is the American military tradition. When faced with adversity, we improvise. Within the rules.

When an infantry unit is unsuccessful in gaining a piece of ground, they don't return to their command and request flamethrowers or chemical weapons. Instead, they improvise and adapt. Flexibility is a significant advantage in battle. Although the flamethrowers and chemical weapons might be more effective, their use is both illegal and immoral. Interrogators do not get a special pass to break the law when they face adversity.

Some former administration officials who approved and authorized the torture and abuse of prisoners have attempted to shift the debate over the use of such illegal methods from what is moral to what is effective. They argue that if it stopped a terrorist attack against the U.S. and saved lives then it is acceptable. I highly doubt we would be making this same argument if we were discussing the battle that took place at the Karbala Pass during the second Gulf War if we had decided to use chemical weapons when faced with heavy resistance. Why then is the public accepting this same argument when it is applied to interrogations? I believe it stems from a misunderstanding of interrogations.

Interrogators are professionals and their techniques are not static. Interrogations is an art (and science) ripe for improvement. There are two areas in particular where interrogators would benefit from significant improvement. The first is in adapting non-coercive criminal interrogation techniques for use by intelligence interrogators. U.S. law enforcement holds a wealth of experience and knowledge of viable interrogation methods. The second area is the realm of cultural knowledge. Lawrence of Arabia understood this simple maxim of Sun Tzu -- "Know thyself, know they enemy, a thousand battles, a thousand victories." Colonial Britain learned this lesson a century and a half ago in present day Afghanistan during The Great Game. We would do well to learn from their mistakes and to steepen our learning curve with regards to Muslim, Afghan, and Arab culture.

I have met, supervised, and fought alongside superb interrogators throughout the Army and other services. It is a career field full of competent, capable professionals. The students I met at Fort Devens impressed me with their passion and intellect and I'm confident they will be superb interrogators. The instructors share their successes (and failures) with their students and pass on a tradition of honorable service from military interrogators going at least as far back as World War II -- men like Grant Hirobayashi and Sherwood Moran, who successfully interrogated Japanese prisoners in the Pacific, as well as the men who served at the secretive Fort Hunt in Northern Virginia interrogating Nazis.

Recently, the Presidential Task Force on Interrogations recommended:

...[T]hat a scientific research program for interrogation be established to study the comparative effectiveness of interrogation approaches and techniques, with the goal of identifying the existing techniques that are most effective and developing new lawful techniques to improve intelligence interrogations.


I am optimistic that we will see the necessary improvements to our interrogation programs come out of this scientific research program. Our country is depending on it.

Note: On October 13th, I will be reading at "Reckoning with Torture", an event sponsored by the ACLU & PEN American Center at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City. Other readers include Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Ishmael Beah, Susanna Moore, George Saunders, and Amrit Singh. More information at: http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/3870/prmID/148