Possible Insight

Fantastic Book on Terrorist Interrogation

with one comment

Thanks to a pointer from Sandeep Baliga over at Cheap Talk, I recently Kindled Matthew Alexander’s How to Break a Terrorist. If this were a novel, it would be in the top 10% of thrillers I’ve read in the last 5 years.  But it’s a true story.

Alexander (a pseudonym) is an Air Force interrogator with a criminal investigation background.  He was brought in as part of team trained to employ “new school” interrogation techniques in Iraq, post-Abu-Ghraib. These techniques focus on building rapport with prisoners and gradually winning their trust, instead of trying to establish dominance and control over them. The book is about his unit’s successful search for Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There isn’t a lot of door-kicking, badass-combat action. It’s a psychological workplace thriller.  But the fact that I lived through the context of how important the mission was makes it rather heart pounding. It’s fascinating how well the new school techniques work on supposedly hardened al-Qaeda operatives and how resistant the old school practioners are to using them. The story also provides some insight into how primate politics can infect even the most clear and critical missions. In fact, a crucial advance in the search comes from Alexander bucking the political order at great risk to his career.

There’s some nice humor too.  “Randy” is the ex-Special-Forces commander of the interrogation unit. He has a reputation as something of a badass.  So a “Randy-ism” will occassionally and anonymously appear on the whiteboard.  My favorites:

“Jesus can walk on water, but Randy can swim through land.”

“When Randy wants vegetables, he eats a vegetarian.”

“Little boys check under their beds at night for the bogeyman.  The bogeyman checks under his bed for Randy.”

Next time I have to interrogate a prisoner, I’ll have some idea of what to do.


Written by Kevin

June 9, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Government

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. A few months ago I was debating online with someone who claimed that torture was a justifiable interrogation technique under certain circumstances. I can’t find the thread now, but my claim was at the time — and is further reinforced now — that all the evidence shows two things: (1) information you gain under torture is highly suspect to the point of being useless, and (2) “new school” techniques that are based on trust/rapport have yielded incredible results, including in the interrogation of Saddam Hussein.


    June 9, 2009 at 1:32 pm

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