Confessions of a Torturer

Just pulled this off Metafilter. A St. John’s grad turned interrogator speaks about what he did to innocents in Iraq: Confessions of a Torturer. There goes Martha Nussbaum’s thesis that the study of the liberal arts will cultivate an ethical sensibility, right out the window. That said, Mr. Lagouranis has a lot more to tell us about how you go from studying the classics to torturing people for information you’re quite sure they don’t possess. First there’s the coverups:

A relative of a high-level Baathist complained to Lagouranis that he’d been tortured. “He told me that when he was arrested he was beaten and forced to stand against a wall and kneel for days, and he was kept from sleeping, and they’d come in occasionally and beat him up and kick him…. “I filed an abuse report on this guy. They had like a standard form, like a memo someone had made up internally at Abu Ghraib, and so I asked my superior for that form, and I went in and did a specific interrogation to ask this guy about that abuse. The guy was really reluctant to talk about it, he said to forget it, he just didn’t want any more trouble for himself. But I got it out of him. I wrote the abuse report and gave it to my superior. And that abuse report, as far as I know, has disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

Then there’s some descriptions of approved tactics, like ‘environmental manipulation’:

“We had three different strobe lights going at once, and the prisoner would be in a stress position, and it was cold, so he’d be freezing.” At times the detainees were exposed directly to the strobe lighting, but at other times they wore goggles that obscured vision but allowed the pulsating light to enter. The music in the shipping container was applied by means of a boom box turned up to maximum volume. “We were supposed to be in there the entire time with the prisoner, but we could walk out and shut the door if we wanted. I would go outside and just sit down, outside the shipping container. I wouldn’t hear it that much. We started out using this heavy metal music that we got from the MPs, but at two in the morning I’d put on James Taylor ’cause I just didn’t want to hear shit like that anymore.”

The idea that the conditions were so uncomfortable that the torturers couldn’t take it any more sort of indicates that you’re probably doing something wrong, don’t you think? But to Lagouranis, it seemed pretty mild:

“We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk. And so they got to us and we were playing James Taylor for them—I think they probably weren’t that upset about what we were doing. Not that I’m excusing what I’m doing, but their reaction was not very severe to it.”

In his defense, the marines were apparently using much more recognizably cruel and inhumane tactics. But the argument that my guilt is lessened by the extremity of another’s guilt is so clearly spurious that I’m surprised anyone ever accepts it.

“The marines had a location—they called it the ‘meat factory’—they would bring them there and they would torture them for 24 or 48 hours before they brought them to us, and they were using techniques like water boarding, mock execution, they were beating them up, breaking their bones, whatever…. Every time they went on a raid it didn’t matter who they were bringing back, they would just fuck these guys up. Old men, 15-year-old kids, they all came with bruises and broken bones. One guy came with a blister on the back of his leg. It was big, it was horrible, a burn blister. They’d made him sit on the exhaust pipe of a running truck.”

At the same time, none of this intelligence was doing any good. The results of interrogations were not being shared, and a lot of the intelligence was falsified or misused:

“I would write intelligence reports and someone would mention the name of somebody, a neighbor, with no incriminating information at all. And the analyst would get ahold of that and that person would become a target and I would be talking to that person the next week—and for what? And I would call up the analyst and say, ‘Why am I talking to this guy?’ And he would quote my report out of context and tell me this was why. It just made no sense.”

According to Lagouranis, this sort of self-deception was common place. The resources for interrogation far outstripped the supply of valuable interrogees, so they just made up reasons to bring people in! Of course, the system doesn’t work every well if most everyone is a complete innocent; there’s no reason to comply with the interrogation even if you are an insurgent, since you know so many true innocents who have been treated cruelly for no reason.

Lagouranis says he once interrogated four brothers who’d been arrested during a general search because soldiers had found a pole in their house that they’d argued could be used for sighting targets for mortars. The brothers, interrogated separately by Lagouranis, contended they used it to measure the depth of water in a canal, and there was nothing incriminating in the house. Though he was convinced they were telling the truth, his superiors would not release the men. A man arrested because he had a cell phone and a shovel met a similar fate. The army contended the shovel could be used to plant an IED and the cell phone could be used to help set it off, and though Lagouranis bought his explanation, nothing he said shook that belief. The army wanted to be able to boast about the number of terrorists apprehended, and the four brothers with the striped stick, the two who ran the aid station at the potato factory, and the man with the shovel were close enough.

For all his self-justification, he does provide a good deal of insight into the efficacy of current torture practices:

Another thing that made it easier was that I felt—and I think this is a flawed argument too—that it was all environmental things that were happening to this person. Like it was gravity that was making his knees hurt, it was the fact that it was cold outside that was making him uncomfortable, it wasn’t me, you know what I mean? As I said, those are flawed arguments, but it makes it easier to do it if you think of it that way.

Sickening… but probably sort of appealing for a disaffected scholar stuck half-way across the world hurting people for no good reason. I encourage you to read the whole interview… it’s stunning, but also matter-of-fact. This is what we do. This is why we do it. This is why it doesn’t work. This is me screaming NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. This is business as usual.

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Torturer”

  1. The desire for easy wins far outstrips the supply of easy wars. Stress positions, sensory manipulation and straightforward cruelty are explicitly illegal. Those that care are statistically insignificant. Perhaps they should shout a little louder to make themselves heard above the din of simplistic compliance. It's our fault that this is happening.

  2. You know, I'm not entirely sure it's 'our fault.' Frankly, I don't know what political lever to pull to prevent this sort of behavior 'in my name,' and I get paid to think about such problems. How much more difficult is it for the average outraged citizen? In these cases, incapacity strikes me as non-culpability, though of course we must endeavor to prevent further torture with all our might. Short of protesting, voting, writing our representatives, and making arguments like this one in the public sphere, however, I think we may be powerless.

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