Matthew Alexander: The Worst Way to Get Good Information
The documents released Sunday, April 24, by WikiLeaks and various media outlets concerning the 779 detainees who have been held or are still being held at Guantánamo Bay reveal few surprises. It isn't news, for example, that many of the detainees who were held -- and quite a few who are still being held -- are innocent of any crime related to terrorism. And what has the United States gained from their near decade of detention?
The answer, the documents suggest, is very, very little. As a former senior military interrogator in Iraq and a member of an elite special operations raid team, I participated daily in the decision-making process that resulted in the detention or release of numerous detainees in that country. These documents reveal that what was true in Iraq has also been true at Guantánamo: that when it comes to extracting intelligence from the war on terrorism's detainees, America's biggest enemy is its own ignorance.
America's greatest weakness in interrogation practices since 9/11 has been its inability to understand the culture of its enemies. Interrogators and analysts routinely assumed that stereotypes about detainees were true. They assumed, for example, that Arabs and Afghans grew up in a culture of violence and therefore only understand violence -- or, as we recently learned with the release of the radio transcripts of a Predator crew that killed innocent civilians during an airstrike in Afghanistan, that stopping to pray is a sign that an Afghan must be a member of the Taliban.
We have lost troves of intelligence because of this failure to properly analyze and understand the men whom we interrogate -- not just guilty men, but also innocent men. Innocent Iraqis provided my team crucial information during our successful hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and other insurgency leaders, because we treated them with respect and paid them compensation when we inadvertently raided their houses. I even convinced a father, innocent of any association with terrorism or the insurgency, to turn in his son, who was running weapons from Iran to Iraq. Eric Maddox, the Army interrogator who located Saddam Hussein, has similarly pointed out that innocent civilians provided some of the most valuable information during his hunt for the former dictator, such as the details of Saddam's diet.
These innocent detainees, however, will never provide accurate, timely intelligence if tortured and abused or detained indefinitely on false charges. More importantly, indefinite detention of innocent people and torture and abusive interrogations -- all of which have been credibly alleged in the case of Guantánamo detainees -- result in several other long-term negative consequences. First, they make other detainees and civilians less likely to cooperate with interrogators because they see us as oppressors. Secondly, these actions denigrate our own forces by lowering them to the standards of our enemies, who do not follow the laws of war or basic American principles, such as our fundamental belief in due process and the right of every individual to not be tortured. And finally, they result in al Qaeda being able to recruit additional fighters because they use America's actions as propaganda.
This last point is the most important in evaluating U.S. detention policies in light of the recent release of new documents. U.S. national security policy, and U.S. foreign policy in general, has for too long focused on stopping terrorist attacks. That's of course a worthy goal, but focusing on short-term wins at the expense of long-term gains will never result in the decline or defeat of al Qaeda. The only way to eliminate al Qaeda or render the group obsolete is by denying it new recruits. That is why America's policy of detaining innocent people and then forging false evidence against them by coercing statements out of other detainees is so counterproductive, as was the case of an Afghan shepherd falsely accused of participating in a roadside bomb attack in May 2003 and held until 2006. Sometimes the best sources are a pair of innocent eyes that can lead you in the right direction. Instead, our actions are a gift to terrorist recruiters. We have cast ourselves as hypocrites -- putty in al Qaeda's hands. And that only prolongs the conflict.
Matthew Alexander is a former senior military interrogator and the author of Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist and How to Break a Terrorist. He is currently a fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.