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Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo

May 04, 2005

We speak with former army sergeant, Erik Saar who served as an Arabic translator at Guantanamo Bay for six months. Among the abuses he says he witnessed was sexual abuse, mock interrogations, the use of dogs and a female interrogator smearing what looked like menstrual blood on a Muslim prisoner. He also says children were imprisoned at Guantanamo and that the military ordered them not to speak to the Red Cross. [includes rush transcript]

We begin today by continuing our extensive look into the abuse and outright torture of prisoners held by the US government since the onset of the so-called war on terror. Three years ago, most people in this country or around the world had never heard of Guantanamo Bay Cuba or the Abu Ghraib prison, two places that have now become global symbols of the US war on terror. Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the breaking of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

To date, no senior military officials have been held accountable for the systematic abuse of prisoners held by the US military. Lawyers for the rank-and-file soldiers who have been prosecuted say that their clients are cogs in a much bigger wheel that goes higher up the chain of command. This weekend, The New York Times reported on a high-level military investigation into accusations of detainee abuse at the Guantanamo Prison camp. While its findings fall far short in describing the extent of the abuse that human rights groups and released prisoners allege are taking place there, it did reveal some significant details.

It concluded that several prisoners were mistreated or humiliated, perhaps illegally, as a result of efforts to devise innovative methods to gain information. The report on the investigation is still a few weeks from being completed and released. The Times says it will deal with accounts by FBI agents who complained after witnessing detainees subjected to several forms of harsh treatment. The FBI agents wrote in memorandums that were never meant to be disclosed publicly that they had seen female interrogators forcibly squeeze male prisoners" genitals, and that they had witnessed other detainees stripped and shackled low to the floor for many hours.

This comes as a former U.S army linguist who worked as an Arabic translator at the U.S prison camp in Guantanamo is speaking out. Erik Saar was stationed at the camp from December 2002 to June 2003. He has just written a new book called "Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo," in which he describes a wide range of practices and techniques used by U.S military officers at Guantanamo and condoned by senior officers.

Erik Saar joins us today in our Boston studio.

  • Erik Saar, author of "Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Saar was stationed at the camp from December, 2002 to June, 2003. And he has just written a new book. It’s called Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo, in which he describes a wide range of practices and techniques used by U.S. military officers at Guantanamo and condoned by senior officers. Eric Saar joins us now in Boston. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Erik.

ERIK SAAR: Thanks for having me, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you start off by talking about why you went to Guantanamo?

ERIK SAAR: I volunteered to go to Guantanamo Bay because I believed in the mission, to be honest with you, ma’am. I went there enthusiastically to serve my country and hopefully to use my Arabic skills to contribute to the war on terrorism and to help. I believed I was going to sit face-to-face with those who perpetrated and were responsible for the events of September 11 and those who were — or those who were planning future attacks against the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And is that what happened when you went to Guantanamo?

ERIK SAAR: Well, I went there with one expectation. What I found shortly after I arrived, and then I actually went through a process of realizing that my expectations really clashed with the reality of Guantanamo Bay. And it’s not exactly what I found. There were a number of things that troubled me, that ended up leading me to the conclusion that Guantanamo Bay, to me, represents a mistake and a failed strategy in this war.

AMY GOODMAN: You translated for the interrogators at Guantanamo?

ERIK SAAR: I did. In the second half of my six-month assignment, I did serve as a translator in a number of interrogations.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe one scene of a female interrogator. Can you talk about what happened that day and start from the beginning?

ERIK SAAR: That day, a technique was used in the interrogation booth where sex was used as a weapon to create a wedge between the detainee we were speaking with and his faith. For example, more specifically, the female interrogator I worked with that day sought to sexually entice the detainee. The logic behind that was that if he would be sexually attracted to her, he would feel unclean, and therefore, she believed, in Islam, he would be unable to go back to his cell and pray. One thing she additionally did in order to humiliate him and also to make him feel unclean was wipe what was red ink on his face, but it was done in a way that he believed it was menstrual blood. All of this again was in an attempt to create this wedge between himself and his religion and not only was it ineffective, but I thought it was unethical.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you describe the events in detail? I mean, what happened? You were sitting in the room translating, and she walked in the room, the prisoner already there or brought in after?

ERIK SAAR: I walked in with her. The prisoner had already been there waiting for a good period of time before we arrived. He was shackled to the floor and forced to hunch over. We were asking him — telling him to be cooperative. She was explaining — saying that, you know, this is going to be unpleasant for you. After a break, we then returned to the interrogation booth, and that was when she started taking off her outer blouse, where she was wearing a tight t-shirt underneath, and she was touching herself and trying to arouse the detainee.

AMY GOODMAN: What was she saying to him?

ERIK SAAR: She was saying, you know, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could sit across a table and talk like adults, but I could tell — and then she went on to say — I could tell that you’re aroused by me. How do you think Allah feels by you being attracted to an American infidel?

AMY GOODMAN: Did she describe her body to him?

ERIK SAAR: She did describe her body, and she walked around, and she rubbed her breasts on his back. And she was basically attempting to entice him.

AMY GOODMAN: What was her name?

ERIK SAAR: I’m not — really, I didn’t write the book to go into specific allegations of what individuals did, but if I could take the opportunity to say this: One of the things that troubled me most about the camp was that the individuals there who were working were doing — were making — however misguided it was, were attempting to get information under techniques that were permissible by the command. So, I really did not name anyone specifically for that reason, because I don’t think anyone was operating outside of what the chain of command thought was permissible.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you had this behavior that she was exhibiting described to you before? Did you know that this was going on in other cases?

ERIK SAAR: I simply knew from other cases and colleagues that worked in interrogations and from seeing a skirt that hung up on a door that sex was used in other interrogations to create this sort of wedge between the detainee and his faith. But I really didn’t — I hadn’t sat in and seen one of these interrogations until that day.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, in that case, as she was rubbing her body on him and she took off her outer blouse, what did she do then?

ERIK SAAR: Well, we took a break and then we went back. That was when she went and found a red marker to wipe red ink on her hands. We returned to the interrogation, where she told him that she was menstruating and walked around and began to put her hands in her pants and walked around the detainee and then wiped the red ink on the side of his face and told him that it was menstrual blood.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he was still shackled on the floor?

ERIK SAAR: No. At that time, actually, when we returned to the interrogation booth, he was actually in a chair, but he was shackled. His ankles were shackled to the floor.

AMY GOODMAN: And as she smeared this ink on his face, what did he do?

ERIK SAAR: He lunged from the chair and actually he came out of one of the ankle shackles that was on, and the M.P.'s had to come in, the guards had to come in and put him back in the shackles. And all of this, I'd like to say, was with someone that personally based on the intelligence I had access to was someone who was an individual that, to be honest with you, I hope never sees the light of day, and — but of course, goes through some process of justice, in order to be — to face a just punishment, but at the same time, what convinced me and what was so troubling was that, first of all, this was ineffective; secondly, even if it was effective, it was apparent to me that what we were doing there was not in keeping with the values we stand for as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, all of this time when she was saying things to him, things sexual in nature, you were the translator, is that right? You had to translate this into Arabic to him?

ERIK SAAR: Yes. I was there for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he responding to you at all?

ERIK SAAR: He was responding only to me, really, because he did not want to look her in the eye. So, yes, he was responding to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any conversations with him separately, and how did you feel conveying this, speaking as her?

ERIK SAAR: That’s a good question. I actually felt — it was one of the frustrations of dealing with certain interrogations, because as a linguist, you’re to take on the role of the interrogator who was with you. So, there was a conflict there in that I wasn’t necessarily agreeing with what was taking place, but you had a mission at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, when she took the red ink and smeared it on him, did she say to him, this is menstrual blood?

ERIK SAAR: Yes, she said this is menstrual blood. And then she also said, you know, have fun attempting to pray in your cell tonight when your water is going to be turned off. So they would turn off the water in his cell so he couldn’t become ritually clean.

AMY GOODMAN: And his response?

ERIK SAAR: His response was really non-verbal. The only thing I can make out that he said was some profanity, but other than that, he really was just despondent, and I guess that’s the best way to put it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Erik Saar, military intelligence soldier’s eyewitness account of what happened at Guantanamo, translator for the interrogators there. We’ll be back with him in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Erik Saar. He wrote the book, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo, where he was an Arabic translator for interrogators there. He joins us from Boston. You were talking about the man that was being questioned in that case, a Saudi man. Why had he been picked up? Where he had been picked up, Erik Saar?

ERIK SAAR: I can only say so much about this particular case, because when I wrote the book, the book actually had to be vetted by the Pentagon in order to insure that I wasn’t revealing any classified information. But really what I’m just comfortable saying is that he was someone who we knew to have ties to terrorist organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: And as a result of the interrogation, did he reveal anything?

ERIK SAAR: To my knowledge, Amy, I don’t know that he ever did. But that was the last interrogation that I participated in. And I left the island shortly thereafter.

AMY GOODMAN: Because of your own feelings, or your tour was done?

ERIK SAAR: My tour was up, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo? How many of them would you say are what the U.S. government calls terrorists?

ERIK SAAR: Well, it’s difficult for me to say, because that definition seems so ambiguous, but I’ll say this, that I was under the impression when I went there that I was going to be sitting face-to-face with hardened terrorists, meaning what our government had said is the worst of the worst. And I took that to mean those individuals that had extensive training from al Qaeda. Additionally, I thought that they were going to be men who had planned attacks against the United States, who were responsible for the events of September 11, or who were planning future attacks against the United States. But what I found to be the case was that — and then I was also told that they were all enemy combatants, supposedly, this new term, that were picked up on the battlefield with weapons; they had taken up arms against Americans. But we knew, to be — I shortly found out after arriving there that that necessarily was not the case with a number of individuals. And we knew that there was a chunk of men there who we really had no idea how they came to us, or we did know that they were turned over by foreign governments or by the Northern Alliance. So, we had no way to ascertain whether or not they had, in fact, ever taken up arms against them, or really even know how to corroborate their story.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get to spend casual time with them outside of these extremely tense interrogation situations?

ERIK SAAR: Actually, Amy, I had two jobs while I was on the island. The second half of my assignment there was when I worked on the intelligence team and worked with the interrogators in interrogations. But the first half of my assignment was actually as a linguist, dealing just as you mentioned, ma’am, with the day-to-day existence of the detainees on the cell blocks.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they say to you?

ERIK SAAR: You know, one of the things we were warned of early on was an attempt — was not to be manipulated by the detainees because they saw us as linguists as their link to the outside world. So, we did try to remain guarded, but at the same time our day existed of having casual conversations with them, to be honest with you. Many of them told their stories or what they said their stories were, of how they were innocent, and they should not be held there. Some of them were lying to us. Some of them, I think there might have been some truth in what they were saying, but many of them were despondent and wanted to know when they were going to see an attorney, or when the United States was going to charge them with something. Things along those lines were typical conversations.

AMY GOODMAN: Translating letters from their families?

ERIK SAAR: We did. There was a unit that translated letters from the families going to the detainees. I had — I really didn’t have a very significant role in that.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe in your book what would happen when high-level politicians or officials would come through Guantanamo.

ERIK SAAR: Right. What one of the things I learned when I joined the intelligence team was that when a V.I.P. visit would take place, meaning it could be a general or could be an executive from the senior government service, one of the intelligence agencies, maybe, or even a congressional delegation, there was a concerted effort to explain to the interrogators that they were to find a detainee who had previously been cooperative and put him in the interrogation booth at the time when the V.I.P. would be visiting and sitting in the observation room. Essentially, they were to find someone who had been cooperative, who they were able to sit across a table with and have a regular dialogue, and someone who would also — had in the past provided adequate intelligence, and then they were to replay that interrogation for the visiting V.I.P.s. And essentially, as an intelligence professional, this was insulting. And I don’t think I was alone in feeling this way, to be honest with you, because in the intelligence community your whole existence is in order to provide policymakers with the right information to make the right decisions. So, that’s really the existence of the intelligence community, to simply provide the right information. And this concept of creating this fictitious world so Gitmo like one thing to those visiting, when in reality it was something far different, completely undermined everything that we, as professionals, were trying to do in intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to convey that in any way to these people, and who were they? I mean, are we talking about senators?

ERIK SAAR: What I had experience with, ma’am, was a number of generals that came to visit the island, and then there were executives from a few of the intelligence agencies, and then I also knew that there was a congressional delegation. I believe it was mostly staffers, but I could be incorrect about that, that also visited the island during my time there. And I was not able to convey that and, you know, I have to accept responsibility for not having done so, but it really was not something that was hidden, I didn’t believe. You know, honestly, ma’am, I didn’t know if I thought that the V.I.P.s when they came to visit really believed they were seeing an actual interrogation. I almost find that hard to believe, because if they wanted to see something that might be typical, at least from the military’s perspective, regarding what was going on in the interrogation booth, they might have been better off coming unannounced and asking to see an interrogation at 2:00 in the morning.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to a military intelligence soldier. His name is Erik Saar. And he has written about his experiences at Guantanamo, a book called Inside the Wire. You talk about hidden. The Major General in charge of Guantanamo, Geoffrey Miller, was accused of hiding prisoners from the International Red Cross. Do you have any knowledge of that?

ERIK SAAR: I don’t know of the specific examples that we’ve cited in the past where they have referred to the detainees as ghost detainees, meaning that they’re not on the books at the camp. To me, I had no knowledge of that, but I did know that on occasion when a detainee would have his head shaved and occasionally his eyebrows shaved, we would move that detainee to an isolation cell so the Red Cross didn’t have access to that individual.

AMY GOODMAN: Were dogs used?

ERIK SAAR: Dogs were used on occasion, yes, ma’am.


ERIK SAAR: That’s another thing that because the Pentagon vetted the book, I really can’t speak outside of the scope of what I have written, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned about that use of dogs?

ERIK SAAR: To be honest with you, ma’am, one of the things I was trying to explain in the book is that, you know, I went to Guantanamo Bay with one expectation, and I, to be honest with you, I had no reservations whatsoever about any techniques we were going to use and about the lack of a system of justice for the detainees, but really, what my experience was was that over time, I came to the conclusion by the time I left Guantanamo that we’re making a drastic mistake here, and what I saw as a whole was inconsistent with who we are and the values we represent as a nation.

AMY GOODMAN: As you were developing these feelings, while you were there, you must have been having conversations with the other soldiers there. What was their response?

ERIK SAAR: You know, a lot of the soldiers there shared some of my frustrations, but I don’t want to say or act as though they all came to the conclusions exactly in the same way that I did or had the same conclusions. But at the same time I think if you talk to individuals who had been there, you will find someone who has frustrations with some elements of the camp. I mean, it was — the way in which the camp was run, the gray lines that no one knew what was clearly defined as right and wrong, frustrated a number of individuals, and many people even were troubled by the fact that the files on a number of the individuals being held were extremely thin. We knew very little, excuse me, about why they were there. And that bothered some people in thinking that as Americans, we enjoy one way of life, and we say that our system of justice is something that we want to promote around the world, and our democratic values are something that we stand up for, but at the same time we’re defying those very same values in Guantanamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: After the situation, the interrogation that the female interrogator performed on the Saudi prisoner, did you have a conversation with her? Did you raise your objections to her?

ERIK SAAR: I did not. Actually, as soon as at interrogation was over, I left the interrogation booth, and we didn’t speak again. But one of the things I want to be very clear about is I didn’t go forward and say anything to anyone, and I wish I had, but at the same time, ma’am, I really had no reason to think that what took place that night was outside of the of the scope of what the command had deemed permissible. So truly, all I did was request from someone who handled the scheduling of the interrogations not to be used in the interrogation booth from that point on. I think I had about a month left on the island.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Saar, was the words Geneva Conventions ever used at Guantanamo?

ERIK SAAR: One time, ma’am, I can say, when we were talked to regarding the Geneva Conventions, and there was a meeting that I describe where our leaders of the intelligence group explained to us that the Geneva Convention does not apply at Guantanamo Bay. And they gave us reasons as to why they rationalized that it did not, and that now the detainees, we should understand — of course, we knew this beforehand, but this was in a meeting where they were explaining to us the reasons why — we should understand that these individuals were enemy combatants and to be treated as detainees. And one of the frustrations regarding that is someone who interacted with and had friends who were interrogators, is that the essence of their training, ma’am, when they go through school, is that you were taught a couple of things about the Geneva Convention. First of all, all your training is under the umbrella of the Geneva Convention, and you are told that you never violate the Geneva Conventions as an interrogator, because — for two reasons: Number one, it’s illegal; and number two, they’re taught that it’s ineffective. And if you need to use tactics outside of the scope of the Geneva Conventions, you are going to get bad intelligence anyway. But somehow, no one quite understood how it was determined that now those rules don’t need to apply. Plus there’s limited, if no training, for how these new rules should be implemented in the interrogation booth, and what is the rationale for why previously, I was taught as an interrogator or one of my colleagues was taught, that these techniques wouldn’t work, but now we’re saying that maybe they will?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever have fights with other soldiers there over your feelings about what was happening?

ERIK SAAR: No, ma’am, I didn’t. And to be honest with you, the conclusions that I drew was really a process for me. I mean, there were things that frustrated me along the way that I saw, but it’s not as though during week three of my time at Guantanamo Bay I came to the conclusion that, wow, this is a terrible place and we should never be doing this, because there was also that internal battle of me saying, look, maybe — I was saying to myself, maybe this is what’s necessary in the war on terrorism. Maybe these are the steps that we need to take to protect ourselves. And it wasn’t until the end of my time there that I really reached the conclusions that I drew that it’s not necessary, and the techniques are ineffective, and it’s not in keeping with who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Saar, do you think that the abuse was creating terrorists?

ERIK SAAR: I think, Amy, that what I witnessed at Guantanamo Bay was, on a practical level, counterproductive in the war on terrorism. Because, in fact, as we go throughout the Arab and Muslim world and say that we’re going to promote values of democracy and justice and human dignity, but at the same time defy those very same values in Guantanamo Bay, I do think in the long run, it could produce more terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: When the pictures of Abu Ghraib broke, it was a year ago, April 2004. What was your response? You had been out for about a year.

ERIK SAAR: Actually, it was just — I was out of Guantanamo Bay for a year, but I was just finishing my time in the army. But I was saddened, to be honest with you, ma’am, because I’m not someone who has left the army, and although I might be portrayed this way in the coming days, I’m not someone who thinks the army is a terrible organization. To be honest with you, I think by and large the men and women I served with, Americans should be proud of every day because of the sacrifices they make. But it saddened me as a soldier, because obviously it hurt our reputation. And I also realize that some of the things that we’re discussing about Guantanamo Bay might hurt our reputation, but I’m also led to believe based on my convictions that one of the great things about our country is that we try to correct our mistakes and learn from them. And that’s one of the things that’s so great about our democracy. In fact, the very fact that I’m able to write this book is a testament, I believe, to how great we really are. So, it saddened me that it hurts our reputation, but I think it’s also something we can recover from.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see any kids at Guantanamo?

ERIK SAAR: I knew that there were children at Guantanamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: Are they still there?

ERIK SAAR: I wouldn’t be able to say that. I believe based on reports that I read that some of the younger children are not there anymore, but because I left in 2003, I could not say.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were they, and how many?

ERIK SAAR: I don’t remember their exact ages, to be honest with you, ma’am, because they actually didn’t — the individuals I’m thinking of that were kept at a place outside of Camp Delta were not Arabic speakers. So I had colleagues of mine that were linguists who worked with them, but I wasn’t privy to exactly how they were interacted with.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever talk to the Red Cross there and raise any concerns?

ERIK SAAR: No. No. We were under strict guidelines to never speak with the Red Cross.

AMY GOODMAN: Even if they tried to talk to you?

ERIK SAAR: Exactly. Even if they tried to talk. We could have — we were definitely — the orders were very clear to stay far away from them.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you wish you did now?

ERIK SAAR: You know, I wish I had said something to someone, to be honest with you. I don’t know who would have been the appropriate person to talk to. I have been told that I should have gone to my chain of command, but as I have tried to say, I wish I had done that, but I don’t think the command would have been surprised by anything that I had said.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you told not to speak to the Red Cross?

ERIK SAAR: I don’t know the exact reasoning behind it, but I think they wanted to insure there wasn’t — the Red Cross did not have access to anyone who knew of the intelligence situation on the island.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Guantanamo should be closed?

ERIK SAAR: Well, I don’t know. I’ll tell you this, ma’am, I do know that there should be some drastic changes, and in order to be — in keeping with the liberties we enjoy as a country, if we’re going to somehow portray those values around the world, I do think we need to have a system of justice. And the fact that there’s a number of individuals there that have had no access and no way to even defend themselves, I think is not in keeping with the values that we enjoy as Americans. So as we go about defending ourselves, I don’t think it’s logical to defy those values in the process.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Saar, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

ERIK SAAR: Thank you, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: Erik Saar has written the book, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo, speaking to us from Boston.

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