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Sunday, April 22, 2007

How to Break a Terrorist

The May 2007 issue of The Atlantic has a must-read cover story written by Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down) called How To Break a Terrorist. The article is billed as "The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's inner circle -- without resorting to torture -- and hunted down al-Qaeda's man in Iraq."

The article is fascinating and encouraging on several fronts.

Most of the key people on the team that broke the suspects to provide information that allowed the elimination of al-Zarqawi were not career CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency or black-ops commandos.

Some were on active duty, a good number from military-police units. Some were veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, where they had so distinguished themselves that the Special Operations Command had sought them out.

All of them were recruited in 2005 after all the controversy over Abu Ghraib became public.

What's fascinating about the story is how a group of people from all over seemed to naturally and fairly quickly evolve a team approach to figuring out what made their captives tick. Interestingly, all of the interrogators dressed in street clothes and were allowed to grow beards, etc. and NEVER conveyed any information about their rank or role to the captives. This proved useful over time because as a particular interrogator found a chink in the captive's ego or temper to leverage, they could evolve their "story" about who in the team was in a position to do what for the prisoner on the fly.

The team was also particularly astute at using the prisoners' egos against them at the right point. The key break in deciphering the power structure of the prisoners and their larger organization occurred when one prisoner added a very subtle twist to a story he had repeated dozens of times before and referenced someone he met alone. The interrogator noticed the discrepancy then used the prisoner's ego and confidence about his own debate skills and logic to flatter the prisoner and convey he was much more respected than the other prisoners.

"We both know what I want," Doc said. "You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don't want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you are -- you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq...

"You and I know the name of a person in your organization who you are very close to, " Doc said. "I need you to tell me that name so that I know I can trust you. Then we can begin negotiating." In fact, the American had no particular person in mind. His best hope was that Abu Haydr might name a heretofore unknown mid-level insurrectionalist.


In fact, the prisoner named Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the senior advisor to al-Zarqawi. By June, a subsequent conversation with the same prisoner mentioned another contact, Sheikh al-Rahman, the so-called "spiritual advisor" to al-Zarqawi. At that point, his whereabouts WERE known, Predator drones were dispatched, and we nailed Zarqawi from the clouds on June 6, 2006.

The prisoners who provided the information were captured in April 2006 and we nailed our man by June 6, 2006.

THAT'S how we got to al-Zarqawi.

No waterboarding. No cattle prods. No stress positions. No extraordinary rendition. No sexual abuse. Two months of intense conversations produces CORRECT, ACTIONABLE intelligence.

There are plenty of people in the military capable of combating terrorists successfully. It's a shame we didn't have enough of them in the proper positions of power in the Pentagon and White House to dictate the proper strategies from Day One.