An Abu Ghraib ‘enhanced’ interrogator has a change of heart

The military’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against suspected terrorists has always been a contentious topic, and now many of its former proponents are having second thoughts. Eric Fair served as an interrogator with a private contractor in Iraq, and his new book “Consequence” reflects on the work he has come to regret. Fair joins Judy Woodruff to explain his change of heart.

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    The military's use of forced interrogation has always been a contentious subject, even though many who may have once approved of its use now have second thoughts.

    Our newest addition to the "NewsHour" bookshelf is Eric Fair's "Consequence: A Memoir."

    Judy Woodruff recently talked with him about his firsthand experience with torture.


    Eric Fair, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    ERIC FAIR, Author, "Consequence": Thanks for having me.


    So, this is a very painful book to read. What did you want to accomplish by writing it?


    I know that it's a painful book to read.

    It was an incredibly a painful and chaotic book to write. And I think what I wanted to accomplish was, I have been writing about my experiences in Iraq for close to 10 years now. And I have been writing mostly op-eds and small essays.

    And I think it was important for me to get the entire story down. It was submitted originally just about Iraq. And at that point, editors and agents suggested that I needed to spend more time exploring the whole story.


    Remind our audience why you ended up in Iraq in the first place. You were working for a contractor, a company that was hired to be involved in interrogating prisoners of war.


    Right. Sure.

    I had been in the Army from 1990 to 2000. I was an Arabic linguist. And I had received my discharge in 2000, when it appeared that there was no reason for an Arabic linguist to be in the Army. Nothing seemed to be going on in the world.

    I went back home to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, became a police officer, and was subsequently diagnosed with a heart condition that ended my career. And this was after 9/11. The war in Iraq was just beginning to ramp up. The invasion was over. Contracting companies were desperate for employees in a number of different positions. And they were desperate to get people over as quickly as possible.

    And I knew it was the one way that I could essentially sneak in without any kind of health examination and get back into that community. I had supported the invasion and I felt like I had an obligation, because of that support, to be a part of it.


    What did you think you were going to be doing when you went to Iraq, and then how did that compare with what you found yourself in the middle of?


    My experience with a war in the Middle East had been, like many Americans, with the first Gulf War.

    And so the impression that I had was that we — there would be thousands of Iraqi troops surrendering, being brought back to the rear, and then essentially debriefed. And so we would have talked to them about the units that they were in and the strength of those units, things like the kind of weapons they had or the systems — that weapons systems, to gauge just how committed and how strong these troops were.

    We had not anticipated doing interrogations or being part of a prisoner of war camp in Iraq and surrounded by combat. And so we were driven out to Abu Ghraib and essentially started work the next day. And much of it was really more associated with law enforcement.

    It was the idea of deciding whether or not someone was guilty or why they had been captured, or if they should stay in custody. The insurgency was just beginning to ramp up at point. Mortars were definitely coming into Abu Ghraib, but soldiers were being killed by IEDs. The death count was continuing to rise.

    The idea that the insurgency or the war was going to end was clear to us that it wasn't. And so there was an absolute need for more intelligence information to figure out what was going wrong.


    You write in a lot of detail, graphic detail, about what you saw, how people were treated. Was it a matter of not expecting this? What do you think, ultimately, drove you to want to get out of there?


    I think I was aware right away that, morally, this was difficult, the kind of treatment that prisoners were receiving.

    But, in terms of the legal issues surrounding it, it was policy. And this is essentially what we were supposed to be doing. The vast majority of us, as contractors, were prior soldiers. And so we felt a commitment to the people in uniform and to ourselves and to our community to do these things.

    I lasted about two months doing interrogations. And then eventually I took another position back in Baghdad that wasn't involved in interrogations. But I knew then, even though that I had supported the war, that the invasion was wrong. There clearly were no chemical weapons in Iraq. And much of the narrative that we heard about what was going on there simply wasn't true.


    So much of the book, Eric Fair, is about how this affected you and continues to affect you.


    The process started in late 2006, in which I knew I needed to start writing about some of the things that I had done.

    And I knew that the only way to do that effectively was to write about my own role. And so it wasn't to be a policy pundit and talk about the administration or about the legal issues surrounding it, but I needed to provide an honest account of my own narrative.

    Now, at the time when I started writing, I wasn't calling this torture. That's something I only processed recently and begun to realize that, absolutely, the things we did is torture. And so there have been consequences for me.

    But I recognize that the people who were on the other side of the table in the interrogation booths are the ones who suffered the true consequences.


    What do you want to come out of this book?


    Well, I think, like any writer, it's some sort of hope for a change of the narrative.

    We have a presidential — we have presidential candidates who are now talking about water-boarding and talking about other aggressive techniques. We have the director of the CIA suggesting that his men or his employees wouldn't water-board, which is encouraging, but also very disturbing in terms of — it's a recognition of where we can go, and we can still go back to where we were.

    In fact, we may even go back to something — something far worse. So, there needs to be an honest narrative about not only what this does to certainly the personnel that we will put in these positions, but to the — the kind of things that it does to the people that are in our prisoner of war camps.


    Did you come away of a clear idea of what is within the bounds of what should be permitted when interrogating someone who has done something terrible against the United States, whether it's ISIS or al-Qaida or something, and what steps over the line? Did you come away knowing what that line is?



    And I think that's an excellent question, because I think once you begin to push the limits of interrogation, which, in and of itself, is already kind of a potentially abusive sort of thing, forcing someone to talk to you, the minute you begin to push those limits, and the minute you entitle yourself to force someone to cooperate with you, to essentially change their will, you have moved into this world of torture.

    Torture, for me, were things like stress positions, and in particular sleep deprivation. And I know that a good number of Americans would scoff and even laugh and suggest that we can go as far as water-boarding. And I think you can see just how lost we are in this idea that there are different levels of abuse and different levels of interrogation.

    It's anything that violates another human being's will is torture. And, as Americans, I think that's the attitude we need to have. We don't care what about organizations like ISIS or intelligence agencies in a place like Syria are doing.

    We care about what we're doing. We care about the image that we project. We have an obligation to things like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And those things require us to behave in a certain way.


    Eric Fair, the book is "Consequence: A Memoir."

    And we thank you very much for talking with us.


    Thanks for your time.

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