The tortured lives of interrogators
By LAURA BLUMENFELD
Washington Post, June 9, 2007
CHICAGO — The American interrogator was afraid. Of what and why, he couldn’t say. He was riding the L train in Chicago, and his throat was closing.
In Iraq, when Tony Lagouranis interrogated suspects, fear was his friend, his weapon. He saw it seep, dark and shameful, through the crotch of a man’s pants as a dog closed in, barking. He smelled it in prisoners’ sweat, a smoky odor, like a pot of lentils burning. He had touched fear, too, felt it in their fingers, their chilled skin trembling.
But on this evening, Lagouranis was back in Illinois, taking the train to a bar. His girlfriend thought he was a hero. His best friend hung out with him, watching reruns of Hawaii Five-0. And yet he felt afraid.
“I tortured people,” said Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. “You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that.”
Being an interrogator, Lagouranis discovered, can be torture. At first, he was eager to try coercive techniques. In training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructors stressed the Geneva Conventions, he recalled, while classmates privately admired Israeli and British methods. “The British were tough,” Lagouranis said. “They seemed like real interrogators.”
But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies’ values.
The border between coercion and torture is often in dispute, and the U.S. government is debating it now. The Bush administration is nearing completion of a new executive order setting secret rules for CIA interrogation that might ban waterboarding, a practice that simulates drowning. Last September, President Bush endorsed an “alternative set of procedures,” which he described as “tough,” for questioning high-level detainees. And in Iraq last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, warned troops that the military does not sanction “torture or other expedient methods to obtain information.”
The world of the interrogator is largely closed. But three interrogators allowed a rare peek into their lives — an American rookie who served with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion and two veteran interrogators from Britain and Israel. The veterans, whose wartime experiences stretch back decades, are more practiced at finding moral balance. They use denial, humor, indignation. Even so, these older men grapple with their own fears — and with a clash of values.
That clash, said Darius Rejali, a political scientist who has studied torture and democracy, can torment interrogators: “Nothing is more toxic than guilt, which is typical with democratic interrogators. Nazis, on the other hand, don’t have these problems.”
For Lagouranis, problems include “a creeping anxiety” on the train, he said. The 45-minute ride to Chicago’s O’Hare airport “kills me.” He feels as if he can’t get out “until they let me out.” Lagouranis’s voice was boyish, but his face was gray. The evening deepened his 5 o’clock shadow and the puffy smudges under his eyes.
Not long ago in Iraq, he felt “absolute power,” he said, over men kept in cages. Lagouranis had forced a grandfather to kneel all night in the cold and bombarded others in metal shipping containers with the tape of the self-help parody Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy, and Sexual Satisfaction, by comedians Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. (“They hated it,” Lagouranis recalled. “Like, ‘Please! Just stop that voice!’ ”)
Now Lagouranis’s power had dissolved into a weakness so fearful it dampened his upper lip. Sometimes, on the train, he has to get up and pace. But he can’t escape.
‘Get up and get on with it’
James, an amiable man with a red-to-white beard, shook his head when told of Lagouranis: “He’s full of self-pity.”
James, 65, was one of Britain’s most experienced interrogators in Northern Ireland. Starting in 1971, James said, he worked for the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, interrogating Irish nationalists Gerry Adams, Bobby Sands and others whom the British government suspected of being terrorists. Peter Taylor, a leading historian of the conflict in Northern Ireland, said he believes “James’s account is entirely credible.”
Late one night in 1993, three Irish Republican Army gunmen crept up to James’s door. “They came to get me,” James said. Given a 20-minute warning following a tip to the RUC, he and his wife escaped, ultimately to an island in the Mediterranean. James agreed to talk if his last name and location were withheld. “They haven’t a clue I’m here.”
Driving along winding, stony roads, past goats and grapevines, James had this advice for Lagouranis in Chicago: “You’ve got to get up and get on with it — that’s what we did.”
James had had no training, but the 18-hour days that made his neck ache taught him what he needed: good rapport, good intelligence, great fear. “Yes, a bloke would get a cuff in the ear or he might brace against the wall. Yes, they had sleep deprivation,” he said. “But we did not torture.”
Once, IRA leader Brendan Hughes claimed James had cocked a gun to his head. James does not deny it. “You fight fire with fire,” he said, the memory igniting his blue eyes.
He noted that the sectarian killings dropped off: “If it’s going to save lives, you’re entitled to use whatever means you can.” How do you fight bad guys and stay good? “You don’t. You can’t.”
The only interrogation James regrets was of Patrick McGee, under arrest for IRA activity. McGee did not crack, which meant he would go free. As McGee walked out, “he just stared at you,” James recalled. “Evil was hanging out of him.” James spat in his face. “He never even blinked. It was not satisfying, it was humiliating. I lost my cool.”
James stopped his car at the edge of the ocean. According to Greek mythology, a god frolicked on this beach. Vacationers drank iced coffee and oiled their skin with coconut lotion. But James seemed to be somewhere else, cloudy and turbulent, in his head.
“My friend once saw a guy planting a bomb,” he said. He laughed. “My friend tied a rope around the guy’s ankle, and made him defuse it. Now that’s how to deal with a ticking bomb.”
‘Part of me resisting, part of me enjoying’
Chicago, 8 p.m.
“All of Iraq was a ticking time bomb,” Lagouranis said, downing his fourth of seven beers. He had joined the Army before 9/11 to learn Arabic. He didn’t expect to go to war.
He was sitting on a night off at the California Clipper bar, where he works as a bouncer. The bartender joked that Lagouranis should be tougher on customers: “You should ‘go Abu Ghraib.’ ”
At Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the site of the 2003-04 abuse scandal, Lagouranis used to relax in the old execution chamber. He and a friend would sit near the trapdoor and read the Arabic scratched into the wall. They found a dirty brown rope. It was the hangman’s noose. “If there is an evil spot in the world, that was one of them,” Lagouranis said.
At Abu Ghraib and sometimes at the facilities in Mosul, north Babil province and other places where Lagouranis worked, the Americans were shot at and attacked with mortar fire. “Then I get a prisoner who may have done it,” he said. “What are you going to do? You just want to get back at somebody, so you bring this dog in. Finally, I got you.”
Lagouranis’s tools included stress positions, a staged execution and hypothermia so extreme the detainees’ lips turned purple. He has written an account of his experiences in a book, Fear Up Harsh, which has been read by the Pentagon and will be published this week.
Stephen Lewis, an interrogator who was deployed with Lagouranis, confirmed the account, and Staff Sgt. Shawn Campbell, who was Lagouranis’s team leader and direct supervisor, said Lagouranis’s assertions were “as true as true can get. It’s all verifiable.” John Sifton, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the group investigated many of Lagouranis’s claims about abuses and independently corroborated them.
“At every point, there was part of me resisting, part of me enjoying,” Lagouranis said. “Using dogs on someone, there was a tingling throughout my body. If you saw the reaction in the prisoner, it’s thrilling.”
In Mosul, he took detainees outside the prison gate to a metal shipping container they called “the disco,” with blaring music and lights. Before and after questioning, military police officers stripped them and checked for injuries, noting cuts and bumps “like a car inspection at a parking garage.” Once a week, an Iraqi councilman and an American colonel visited. “We had to hide the tortured guys,” Lagouranis said.
Then a soldier’s aunt sent over several copies of Viktor E. Frankel’s Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Lagouranis found himself trying to pick up tips from the Nazis. He realized he had gone too far.
At that point, Lagouranis said, he moderated his techniques and submitted sworn statements to supervisors concerning prisoner abuse.
“I couldn’t make sense of the moral system” in Iraq, he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was right and wrong. There were no rules. They literally said, ‘Be creative.’ ”
Lagouranis blames the Bush administration: “They say this is a different kind of war. Different rules for terrorists. Total crap.”
‘Interrogation is a beautiful world’
“You have to play by different rules,” the Israeli interrogator told an American visitor. “The terrorists want to use your own system to destroy you. What your president is doing is right.”
The Israeli, who spoke on condition that he be identified by his code name, Sheriff, recently retired as chief of interrogations for Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, which is responsible for questioning Palestinian terrorism suspects.
The former head of the service, Avi Dichter, and the former chief terrorism prosecutor, Dvorah Chen, called Sheriff “the best.”
“To persuade someone to confess feels better than beating him up,” Sheriff said. “It’s a mental orgasm.”
Sheriff is short and chubby, with thin, reddish skin that turns yellow in the folds when he furrows his brow. He keeps an electric razor in his car so he can shave his head while driving. He wears a cap from the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security.
“Interrogation is a beautiful world,” Sheriff said. When Sheriff’s 2-year-old was sick and his wife couldn’t be at home, he brought the toddler to work and laid him in an interrogation room, on a mattress on the floor: “I put the phone next to the baby and said, ‘When you want Daddy, push this button.’ ”
Another interrogator walked in and exclaimed, “My suspect shrank!”
For Sheriff, interrogation was more psychological than physical. He used flattery on Palestinians who put bombs under playground benches: “You say, ‘Hey! Wow! How did you connect these wires? Did you manufacture this explosive? This is good!’”
He played good cop, and bad: “One day I was good. Next day I was bad. The prisoner said, ‘Yesterday you were good. What happened today?’ I told him we were short on manpower.”
Sheriff hugged his suspects, he said, poured them tea and kissed their cheeks. As his former boss, Dichter, put it: “You try to become friends with someone who murdered a baby. That’s your job. It’s the most difficult feeling.” When he came home, Sheriff said, his wife would make him change. “You could smell the guy on your shirt.”
But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was “a very little violence.” Enough to scare people but not so much that they’d collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. “Not torture.”
Sometimes a prisoner would accuse Sheriff of torture. He tried to shift the moral burden by blaming the prisoner: “I would tell him this: ‘I’m sorry. We prefer it the nice way. You leave us no choice.’ ”
‘I saw a ghost last night. It was me’
Chicago, 10:15 p.m.
Lagouranis apologized to his prisoners, too.
“Two brothers, they could’ve died because we were inducing hypothermia,” he said. As Lagouranis was leaving Abu Ghraib, he told one of the brothers: “ ‘I’m sorry. I’ll always consider you a friend,’ He gave me a look — he probably wanted to kill my entire family. I spent a lot of time torturing him, but also talking.”
“I could see you trying to comfort him,” said Amy Johnson, Lagouranis’s girlfriend, sitting at the bar. Johnson likes Lagouranis, she said, because he is gentle.
She was also attracted by the mystery of his job, although she’d never heard the details, until this night. The scars on his ankles from sand-flea bites were visible. Of the unseen scars, Johnson said, “I’m afraid to ask.”
“That’s the most confusing thing — people don’t hate me,” he said.
“But you’re trying to fight the bad guys,” she said. She knows he is haunted. He got an honorable discharge after a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder.” He startles awake, she said: “Last night you had a dream — ”
“I never saw a ghost in Abu Ghraib. But I saw a ghost last night,” he said. “It was me.”
“Seeing innocent people being tortured is hard,” she said.
“Not the things I saw, but the things I did. You keep saying ‘torturing the innocent,’ but the two brothers I tortured were guilty. It doesn’t mean you should torture them.”
Johnson said nothing.
Lagouranis kept talking, this time about his Gerber knife with the black handle and five-inch blade: “I’d been interrogating this guy all night.” But the prisoner, unafraid, looked Lagouranis in the eye. “I had this idea — ”
“That he was guilty?” she said.
“No, at worst he smuggled a can of benzene. It was pure insanity. I wanted to take out my Gerber knife and chop off his fingers.”
Johnson blanched, pressed her fingers against her lips.
“I don’t know if I comprehend it,” she said. “It’s not a good place to go.”
Living in fear
The best place to go to unwind, Sheriff said, was the municipal garbage dump. After work, he’d set up a beach chair on top of the landfill, under the Israeli sun.
Now Sheriff was high up on the dump, safe from vindictive prisoners, boiling water on a portable gas burner to make some tea. “Sugar?” he offered. Sheriff stretched, relaxed. “I’ve got a clean conscience because I rarely use it.”
Israeli society, however, has been conflicted. After more than a decade of debate in legal and security circles, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that torture is illegal.
Sheriff’s concerns, however, aren’t legal, they’re mortal. He carries a 22mm Beretta. In cafes, he faces the door. He ran into a former subject — “a bit scary” — knocking on the window of his car.
For all his bravado, quips and denials, Sheriff is afraid to have his full name published.
“I would not like to die in pain.”
Rules benefitted the terrrorists
Pain, for James — the interrogator tucked away on a Mediterranean island — was what made the attempt on his life so frightening. The IRA had shot his partner in the heart, he said, but when the gunmen came for him, they brought a sledgehammer.
“They would have tortured me and extracted information,” James said.
In 1979, the British government acknowledged that Northern Ireland police had mistreated IRA suspects. It introduced restrictions.
“Every time they changed the rules, it was to benefit murdering terrorists,” James said, grinding the word “terrorists” with his teeth. “We got no protection. Next we’ll be tried as war criminals.”
Even today, James bolts awake when the wind knocks over a plant. His wife said, “One night I woke up, and his hands were around my throat, shaking me. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘There are people in the house.’ ”
James misses his Irish garden. Give him a few brandies and he’ll wistfully sing “The Fields of Athenry.” His eyes turned red and watery as he said, “The people of Northern Ireland will never know how many lives were saved.”
Worse yet, the people he interrogated “are now running the bloody country.” They used to glare, with “venomous looks,” and say in Gaelic, “Our day will come.”
Which side are we on?
Chicago, 11:50 p.m.
Lagouranis stares at their faces when he cannot sleep. He stole a CD with pictures of the prisoners he interrogated in north Babil. He ponders the brown-skinned men with mustaches:
“This guy looted an American supply truck. He was waterboarded by a Marine.”
“That guy was old as dirt. I don’t know why he was there.”
“This guy — you can see the contusions around his head.”
Alone in his apartment, awake most nights, he sits in rumpled jeans and desert combat boots, throwing his Gerber knife at his coffee table. Dirty clothes and beer cans litter the floor. His refrigerator is bare, but his footlocker is full of empty bottles of pills the military doctors prescribed for anxiety.
“It feels like fear. Of what? I’m not sure,” Lagouranis said. “You know what I think it is? You don’t know if you’ll ever regain a sense of self. How could Amy love me? I used to have a strong sense of morals. I was on the side of good. I don’t even understand the sides anymore.”
Next to a mattress on the floor where he sleeps hang his dog tags. Beside it, in the closet, lies a thick brown rope. He has tied it into a noose.