How to Break a Terrorist

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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 with John R. Bruning
Free Press; 288 pages

The Gist:

Air Force officer Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) was flown to Iraq in 2006 as part of a small group of military interrogators (or 'gators, as they call themselves) trained to elicit information without resorting to the old methods of control and force. Upon their arrival, Alexander and his team are assigned to the search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist organization threatening to plunge the country into a violent civil war. Structured around a series of interrogations, How to Break a Terrorist details the battle of wills between 'gators and suspects as well as the internal fight between Alexander's team and the old-school military inquisitors used to more brutal methods of questioning.

Highlight Reel:
1. On the new interrogation tactics he was trained to utilize: "The quickest way to get most (but not all) captives talking is to be nice to them. But what does it mean to be "nice" to a subject under interrogation? ... It means, ideally, getting to know the subject better than he knows himself and then manipulating him by role-playing, flattering, misleading, and nudging his or her perception of the truth slightly off center. The goal is to turn the subject around so that he begins to see strong logic and even wisdom in acting against his own comrades and cause."

2. On the long-entrenched techniques his group tries to change: "After 9/11, military interrogators focused on two techniques: fear and control. The Army trained their 'gators to confront and dominate prisoners. This led down the disastrous path to the Abu Ghraib scandal. At Guantánamo Bay, the early interrogators not only abused the detainees, they tried to belittle their religious beliefs. I'd heard stories from a friend who had been there that some of the 'gators even tried to convert prisoners to Christianity. These approaches rarely yielded results ... My group is among the first to bring a new approach to interrogating detainees. Respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception are our tools."

3. On what makes a good 'gator: "The best interrogators are outstanding actors. Once they hit that booth, their personalities are transformed. They can tuck their reactions and biases into some remote corner of their minds and allow a doppelgänger to emerge. What doppelgänger is most likely to elicit information from a detainee changes from prisoner to prisoner. Sometimes I must have a wife or children, so I can swap stories with the prisoner, though I have neither."

The Lowdown:
As Alexander points out, much has already been written of the abuses inflicted by the U.S. military upon prisoners under its care. His goal, instead, is to show that it's possible to get results without smashing some guy against the wall or pouring water down his throat. (As Alexander also points out, many in the military did not agree — and still don't.) Originally slated for release months ago, How to Break a Terrorist was held up by a Defense Department review, in which many passages were literally blacked out. Alexander had to sue in order to get the review completed so he could put out his book.

It's a claustrophobic read. Alexander didn't do anything for months but eat, sleep and interrogate prisoners. Many of the book's scenes take place in interview booths—Alexander, his partner, an interpreter and the bad guy. It's often gripping, as the participants volley back and forth with verbal attacks, strategies and approaches, making for a surprisingly cerebral war book. That tight focus does, however, leave large gaps. Alexander scarcely discusses the theories behind his interrogation strategy, its derivation or whether the U.S. military continues to use it. Such things are forgotten as the book winds down into a tense one-on-one with the man who can potentially hand over al-Zarqawi, but a fuller epilogue could have broadened the story beyond this single set of circumstances.

The Verdict: Read