Sometimes, wartime interrogations work better when you tell the truth, or when you let them lie

Sometimes, wartime interrogations work better when you tell the truth, or when you let them lieMatthew Alexander, an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves, led interrogation teams in Iraq. 

Mr. Alexander talked about the techniques he used to get prisoners to talk. He has written two books: How to Break a Terrorist, and Kill or Capture.

"The first step of any interrogation is to understand your detainee, understand what uniquely motivates them as an individual," he explains. "(You have to understand) why they joined al-Qaida or another insurgent group, why they decided to pick up arms. And if you can analyze them and figure out those motivations, then you can craft an appropriate approach and incentive, but not until you’ve done that."

Alexander learned to offer things he couldn’t necessarily deliver, a technique he says criminal investigators use every day to catch criminals. In one instance, he even forged a divorce application for an informant who wanted to get out of a marriage.

"Deception is a legitimate part of warfare," he says. "We don’t question deception if an infantry fakes an attack on the left and sweeps right. And interrogators can use deception, too, but they must be careful about how they use that deception. And the reason why is because somebody else is going to interrogate that detainee one day. And if you’ve used deception and you’ve been found out, then they’re going to have a harder time establishing trust."

To gain trust with the Sunni combatants he was interviewing, Alexander says, he would admit that the United States had made some strategic mistakes in its approach in Iraq.

"Almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that," he says. "And it moved many of them to hear that, because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing."


DAVIES: I noticed that you would often begin by saying: I’m going to treat you with respect, and I would like you to treat me with respect, by which I mean you don’t lie to me. And it seems in a lot of the prisoner interrogations that you reconstruct for us in these books, that the detainees quickly lie. Almost all of them seem to lie initially, or at least you believe they lie. Do you then confront them?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Sometimes you do, but sometimes you let them get away with the lie. For instance, I don’t really care if anybody ever admits to participating in terrorist activity. I could have somebody on tape, you know, having prepared suicide bombers to go out on missions. We had detainees who we had on tape having cut people’s heads off with machetes. But I would let them lie about that all day, as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed to go out and kill or capture the next target.

That’s the difference between, you know, law enforcement interrogation – you know, I was a criminal investigator – and intelligence interrogation.

And some interrogators, even in the military, forgot this, that they’re not there to get a confession. In fact, I believe that the confession hurts you because it reminds both them and the interrogator that you’re opponents. So I would gladly allow them to lie about their participation in terrorist activity as long as they were telling me the truth about the information I needed.

 Listen to the interview at NPR>>

– One Man Says No To Harsh Interrogation Techniques, NPR>>
– How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq by Matthew Alexander, Amazon>>
– Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist by Matthew Alexander, Amazon>>

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