Should torture be part of the U.S.’s counterterrorism approach?

By Reuters Staff
June 24, 2009


The following piece was co-written by Matthew Alexander, Joe Navarro and Lieutenant General Robert Gard (USA-Ret.) They are pictured from left to right.

Matthew Alexander led an interrogations team assigned to a special operations task force in Iraq in 2006. He is the author of “How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.” He is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons.

Joe Navarro, a former FBI counterintelligence and counterterrorism expert, is an adjunct faculty member at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.

Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA-Ret.) is president emeritus at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The views expressed are their own.

President Obama decided not to release a new group of detainee abuse photographs because he believes they would inflame our enemies and threaten American troops. Indeed, the shocking photos from Abu Ghraib have served as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and have sparked outrage across the world.

It is not the release of the photos, however, that would elicit horror and anger. It is their brutal content and the misguided policies they reflect. The controversy surrounding the photos and the president’s release of four Department of Justice memos have brought into sharp focus a debate that has been in the shadows of public discourse for several years: Should the U.S. include torture and cruelty in its counterterrorism arsenal?

Since it has become clear that the U.S. authorized and carried out a torture program, defenders of the policy have repeated half-truths and outright deceptions about its effectiveness. In 2007, CIA officer John Kiriakou appeared on ABC News claiming waterboarding broke senior al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in “30, 35 seconds.” Kiriakou’s statements were widely reported and used to portray waterboarding as a harmless procedure despite the fact that he had no first-hand knowledge of Zubaydah’s interrogation—he wasn’t even in the same country when it occurred.

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan contradicted these and other false claims in a Senate hearing on interrogation practices. Experienced interrogators like Soufan prefer to use a technique that relies on “outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed.”

Soufan testified that by interrogating Zubaydah using this approach, he obtained valuable intelligence in less than an hour. Further, when another interrogation team introduced harsher techniques, Zubaydah “shut down and stopped talking.” Al Qaeda members, Soufan explained, are trained to withstand torture.

The reality is Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. This puts a serious hole in the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario that advocates of torture repeatedly return to.

As the validity of such justifications is repeatedly dismissed, attempts to rationalize torture are getting increasingly desperate. At last month’s hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claimed, “one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.” To which Ali Soufan responded, “Because, sir, there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to interrogate, and it’s easier to hit somebody than outsmart them.”

Among policymakers and the public, there appears to be a fundamental, widespread misunderstanding of how effective interrogation works. Senator Graham questioned Professor David Luban about exploiting a detainee’s phobia of spiders. The experts—who have spent years interrogating the toughest, most dangerous people in the world—know that smart interrogation is not about terrorizing detainees.

We should be careful not to overlook other forceful reasons for not using torture. The public debate often disregards—to the detriment of the U.S. interests—the profound damage done by violating U.S. law and international legal obligations prohibiting not only torture but even cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Our prestige and power, our respect for the rule of law and respect for the rights of humankind are inextricably tied to preserving America’s ideals.

The most critical aspect of this scandal, especially in terms of immediate implications for our national security, has to do with the international community. Our relationships with long-standing and vital allies have been greatly strained. With the rising influence of non-state actors and an ever-increasing level of interdependence and unpredictability amongst nations, the need for trusted partners has never been greater; this is especially evident with regards to the threat of terrorism and the strength of extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Throughout our history, the values that we protected—respect for our common humanity and the rule of law—set a standard to which the rest of the world aspired. As Senator John McCain said, “[T]his isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are.”

Regaining our moral leadership in the international community is contingent on publicly—and unmistakably—casting aside a policy and strategy that flouts our laws and corrupts our values. We must continue to lead where we want others to follow by demonstrating that our principles and our practices are indistinguishable from one another.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Frank, please do, please explain it to me. I want to know what we do that’s immoral that we must continue to do in order to be secure, it’s not as intellectual as you make it sound to me.

Do we need the War in Afghanistan?

Do we need the War in Iraq?

Do we need to be the #1 arms dealer?

Do we need extraordinary rendition?

Do we need a 650 billion military budget for 2009?

All I’m asking for are examples of the current military conduct/security the US gov’t imposes and why it needs to be continued in order to remain secure, I’m not trying to be a jerk but it’s a pretty simple question.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Why do we need those things?

Because they achieve America’s interests. Because they help achieve America’s short and long term political goals.

The world is a zero sum game. If America does not enforce it’s interests in the world, another nation or political entity will do so instead.

If America neglect it’s political interests, sooner or later it’s security will suffer as a result. Because groups unfriendly to America will increase their interests and their strength.

Isolationism might keep some of your fringe population happy, but in reality all it does is benefit your international rivals.

Afganistan was a haven for the Taliban. America took advantage of the fact that it was used to base an attack on America, to respond militarily.

If we fail to ensure that Afganistan remains free, it will fall to the Taliban. The region will then be used as a base from which to spread terrorism to Pakistan (a BIG issue) and also into Northern Europe.

Iraq was mainly about teaching Saddam a lesson. It was also based on WMD’s (which were ultimately not found, even if there is documented proof that Saddam *did* have and use them previously).

Iraq was also to show that America and the West would not allow itself to be deadlocked by the UN security council (Russia and China). It also proved a chilling display of American firepower, which has the capacity to utterly defeat an entire nation within three weeks.

And of course, Iran is posing a problem now. It continues to work on a nuclear industry, with the inherent risk of nuclear weapons. America is now in the position to respond militarily if needed.

After that, the main military powers in the middle east are essentially kaput. With the additional benefit that those powers will no longer be able to fund anti-west or anti-Israel groups in other nations.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

We supported the Taliban and Bin Laden, so again i’m not sure why you’re confident that we’re supporting the right people now.

Yeah and it’s too bad I’m in a fringe group and everyone has gotten such low standards for our gov’t and so willing to pay outrageous taxes to support our empire expansion (which does nothing for the middle class family).

Iraq was teaching Saddam a lesson? Did the 130,000 Iraqi civilians and thousands of young american soldiers deserve that lesson? What about the millions of refugees? What was that lesson to Saddam anyway? Not to accept blank checks America wrote him? Not to take our bombs and biological weapons? Not to shake hands with Donald Rumsfeld?

Iran is no problem, every intelligence agency that’s inspected Iran’s facilities has found nothing to suspect them of trying to get a nuclear weapon, this is just a perfect example of modern-day American fearmongering on it’s citizens.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“We supported the Taliban and Bin Laden, so again i’m not sure why you’re confident that we’re supporting the right people now.”

We supported them when they were our allies, and when they worked in line with our interests. Then later, they tried to act in a way which was hostile to American interests. So they were taken out.

That isn’t so hard to understand, is it?

“Did the 130,000 Iraqi civilians and thousands of young american soldiers deserve that lesson? What about the millions of refugees?”

That depends. How many of those deaths and refugees were actually because of *insurgent actions*, as opposed to the direct actions of the American military? You know, all the kidnappings, murder, carbombs and IEDs?

For some reason, most of the “anti-war death surveys” don’t like to dwell on that particular issue.

“Iran is no problem, every intelligence agency that’s inspected Iran’s facilities has found nothing to suspect them of trying to get a nuclear weapon”

Yep. In one breath you can absolve Iran of all suspicion of nuclear weapons. Yet in the next breath you can tell without a doubt that Israel does have them, and even go so far as to accuse the US of selling nukes to them.

And who’s word do you take? The IAEA? A walking joke if there ever was one. The only way they will ever detect a secret nuclear program is:

1. They get rung up by a nation who says “We’re making nuclear bombs. Did you know that?”, or

2. Israel suddenly blows up a building in another nation for no reason, the crater of which later turns out to have uranium particles in it.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Our support of Bin Laden and the Taliban resulted in 9/11, if that won’t force some kind of accountability between you and our gov’t nothing will. You’ll support the idiots in Washington no matter what.

Well done dancing around the US’s support of Saddam and us giving him the weapons and biological weapons that grew him into the full monster he could become. Your heros Reagan and Rumsfeld were the button-pushers during those unforgiveable acts.

I admitted error in where Israel’s nukes come from, not really anyone with any credibility disputes they have them.

I don’t take any media outlet or bureaucracy’s words as fact, but I won’t take one word the US gov’t says as fact when they were 100% sure Iraq had WMD’s and used that lie to ruin the lives of millions and make profits in the billions.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Just because America supported the taliban against the Soviets does not mean America is to blame for 9/11.

If you give money to your friend, and he uses it to murder you, it must be your fault. After all, you gave him the means to kill you, right? So lets take you out of the coffin and prosecute you for your own murder. At least, that is what your logic claims.

The fact that those entities were supported by America, only to later turn against America, is the exact reason why America went to the effort to bring them down hard.

The only person dodging the issues is you.

The truth is that the majority of deaths in Iraq and Afganistan are due to insurgent action, who deliberately target civilians.

Which only proves that America is protecting those nations from repression by violent minority terror groups, who will stop at nothing to gain power over innocent people.

And for the record, while everyone and his dog may ‘know’ that Israel has nukes, nobody with any credibility can ‘prove’ it.

Just like they can’t ‘prove’ that the Iraq war was illegal, or ‘prove’ the war was about oil, or ‘prove’ that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza.

They just say what they ‘know’ and repeat what they ‘know’, until it is accepted as ‘fact’ and the need for ‘proof’ becomes irrelevent.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Your money analogy was incorrect, the better comparison would be that I give a medically insane serial killer a bomb and he kills 100 people with it, yes that would be my fault.

Anon Israel has had nukes for 50 years, here’s the Federation of American Scientist’s detailed breakdown of the history and quantity of their nukes. e/

Here’s one example of war crimes in the first war in Iraq after Saddam left Kuwait.

Here’s a breakdown of the current war crimes in the current War in Iraq. mes_iraq_101006.pdf

“There have been numerous other UN and NGO reports of widespread withholding of food and
water as well as rampant malnutrition of Iraqi civilians, in particular, the children.”

“The UN expert human rights body was so
shocked at the blatant disregard for the continued military operations against the medical
infrastructure in Iraq that it issued Resolution 2005/ 2: Prohibition of military operations directed at medical facilities, transport and personnel entitled to protection during armed conflict.”

“A February 2006 report by The Association of
Psychologists of Iraq noted that children in Iraq especially fear kidnapping and explosions.
The Association surveyed over 1,000 children across and found that “92% of the children
examined [had] learning impediments, largely attributable to the current climate of fear and

The more you read and learn about the US Gov’t the harder it is to wipe away all the shame from your mind.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Thanks, Mr Ham.

Though I fail to see the relevence of what your references prove. Or why you bothered to include them. The moment I looked at them, I knew they would be half-truths.

The FAS site? Only proves what I have already told you. While many people ‘know’ Israel has bombs based on various snips of evidence, it has not been proven conclusively. As you have no doubt read your own references, you already know that.

The highway of death? Nice agitprop for anti-american americans. It is true that soldiers ‘out of combat’ are protected under UN law.

But those Iraqi soldiers were not ‘out of combat’. The term ‘out of combat’ implies:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed ‘hors de combat’ by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause.

This does NOT include enemy forces at arms who are merely withdrawing from an area due to orders. Such soldiers remain capable of combat, remain in a state of war, and can easily be reconsolidated.

You can’t stop a war by simply saying “I am withdrawing my forces”. Combat continues until international mediation, negotiation between the parties, or those soldiers decide to surrender.

And the use of incidiary weapons? International law does not prohibit the use of napalm or incendiary weapons against military targets, unless a particular nation agrees to be bound by such prohibition.

Funny how your deoxys report doesn’t mention any of that. It would detract from the outrage, I expect.

And once again I repeat: The majority of civilian deaths in Iraq are being currently caused by militant actions and terrorist attacks directed against civilians. Not the actions of the American military. You reference does nothing to disprove this.

That’s the problem with references. Easy to accept at face value as fact. Except when you look deeper.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Let’s be honest, the sources don’t do any good both ways.

I won’t believe a source if you gave one from Fox News saying how great our military was doing and they’ve never broken any UN war regulations. You won’t believe any source I give you perceive as anti-war.

I’m not arguing your view on the attacks and the deaths, but those are attacks influenced by our occupation. We’ve found a way to make a terrible situation in Iraq under a brutal dictator even worse, that’s hard to do.

That’s about where the debate ends, you have your view and i have mine and i think we’re both about stuck in our perspectives. Thanks for taking Frank’s spot though, he always seems to leave the discussion when i ask for non-generalities lol.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive


Blanket statements and regurgitated perspectives are boring. If people want to debate, it should be over the finer details.

I have already had several arguments on economic protectionism with Frank, so I have been there too.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

I could care less what reasoning and argument any author uses to justify mistreating people. We’re Americans, we’re not supposed to do that kind of thing.


Posted by Randy Cunningham | Report as abusive