Eric Fair served as an interrogator in Iraq working as a military contractor for the private security firm CACI. He was stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison and in Fallujah in 2004. In a new memoir, Fair writes about feeling haunted by what he did, what he saw and what he heard in Iraq, from the beating of prisoners to witnessing the use of sleep deprivation, stress positions and isolation to break prisoners. The military described such actions as “enhanced interrogations,” but Eric Fair uses another word—torture. He writes, “If God is on anyone’s side in Iraq, it’s not mine.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the Republican race intensifies between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, we begin today’s show looking at torture, an issue that has repeatedly come up on the campaign trail. In February, both candidates were asked about torture at a debate hosted by ABC.
DAVID MUIR: Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?
SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing—losing organs and systems. So, under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.
DONALD TRUMP: I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.
AMY GOODMAN: Following the Brussels attacks, Donald Trump said torture might have prevented the bombings that killed 35 people.
Well, today we begin the show with Eric Fair, who served as an interrogator in Iraq working as a military contractor for the private security firm CACI. He was stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison and in Fallujah in 2004. In a new memoir, Fair writes about feeling haunted by what he did, what he saw and what he heard in Iraq, from the beating of prisoners to witnessing the use of sleep deprivation, stress positions and isolation to break prisoners. In one section of the book, he describes a torture device known as the Palestinian chair. The military described such actions as “enhanced interrogations,” but Eric Fair uses another word—torture. He writes, quote, “If God is on anyone’s side in Iraq, it’s not mine.” Eric Fair’s book is titled Consequence: A Memoir.
Eric, welcome to Democracy Now!
ERIC FAIR: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you write this?
ERIC FAIR: Well, after about—well, what are we at?—12 years now of thinking about Abu Ghraib and close to nine years of writing about it, the memories don’t—don’t go away. I grew up as a Presbyterian in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And part of being a Presbyterian was what we called communal confession. So you arrived on Sunday mornings, and you read your confession from a pamphlet, but you read along with the congregation. And that confession was a critical part of your weekly routine. So, as I continued to think about what had gone on in Abu Ghraib and what my own involvement had been and what I had done, it became necessary to confess. And I started with some smaller articles in a number of different newspapers, but ultimately produced this book.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain how you ended up going to Iraq?
ERIC FAIR: Well, I had been in the Army. I enlisted in 1995, presumably to become a police officer. I had sensed—again, as a Presbyterian, we sense a calling, which often has to do with vocation. And I had sensed a calling to law enforcement. The Army was a means to an end for me. This was 1995 to 2000. I ended up at a language school and became an Arabic linguist. But in those years, there wasn’t much going on overseas that the Army was involved in. So, in 2000, I took my honorable discharge, and I became a police officer in Bethlehem. About a year, a year or two into that, I was diagnosed with a heart condition, which ended my career. And at this point, the Iraq War was beginning to ramp up. And as a former soldier and as a police officer and as someone who had been in that community and around those types of people, I felt an obligation, and I had also supported the initial invasion, so I felt an obligation to be a part of that. Contracting was an opportunity for me to get over there without a health examination.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about this company that you contracted with.
ERIC FAIR: Well, there were a number of different contracting companies that were looking for just about anybody at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: The military wouldn’t have you because of the heart?
ERIC FAIR: The military would not take me, as the heart, but there were also a number of positions—again, the thought—the thought back then was that the war was going to be over very quickly, a matter of weeks, if not months—or, excuse me, matter of months, if not weeks. And so, the Army didn’t think that it had time to train certain positions, to include things like interrogation. And it also thought that it could save money on things like security and transportation. So the idea was that contracting companies like C-A-C-I, or CACI, would come and essentially hire former soldiers who had this kind of expertise and this kind of training, bring them over to Iraq to fill in the gaps, and then send us all back home.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to find out more about CACI, the U.S. private contractor whom you’ve just spoken about. But first, let’s go to a clip from the company’s promotional video.
CACI PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: Character—it’s that unique set of moral and ethical qualities that defines who we are. CACI is built on a foundation of character. For 50 years, our defense, homeland security, intelligence and federal civilian customers have depended on CACI for world-leading information solutions. They count on us for our character, honesty, integrity, commitment, respect. Character—it defines who we are.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Eric Fair, your response to that promotional ad for CACI, the private contractor whom you worked for? And also, could you explain why CACI, as against the military, didn’t require you to take a health exam?
ERIC FAIR: Sure. Well, CACI is an enormous organization. And this contract, this specific contract for interrogation, was a small part of it. I think the vast majority of my colleagues, even if they disagree with what I’m saying now, would agree that the management of CACI employees over in Iraq was a disaster—and lucky it wasn’t a physical disaster. We had vehicles that had been rented from Kuwait that had no armor. We had no medical kits. We had no communication equipment. We had no maps. And so, it was really on the fly.
Now, far be it for me to defend—be the one here defending CACI, which—and I write about—in some detail, about, I think, some of the failures, but CACI was an organization, like so many of the other contractors, that was, in many ways, forced to step up in this war because so few other Americans were joining up. Now, in 2003, something near—nearly 60 to 65 percent of Americans supported the invasion. I was one of them. And as someone who supported it, I felt an obligation to be a part of it. Many of us who ended up in Iraq, either as contractors or soldiers, were curious about where the rest of that 65 percent of the Americans were. Recruiting offices did not have lines out the doors. And the administration was not calling for people for national service. And so, organizations like CACI either accepted that responsibility or they sort of filled in the holes, depending on your perspective.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about walking into Abu Ghraib and what you did there.
ERIC FAIR: Some of us had heard of Abu Ghraib. There had been a downed American pilot in the first Gulf War who had spent some time there, and so we knew that it was a notorious prison in Iraq. But we didn’t have a sense—we didn’t have a sense that it had that kind of overwhelming sense of fear for Iraqis. We just thought of it as a typical prison. Many of us were former police officers, law enforcement officers—we had been in prisons. But Abu Ghraib, they—we arrived, they dropped us off, and they left. And they housed us in cells at the time. And there was something in the neighborhood of probably less than 500 American personnel, whether they be troops or contractors. There were thousands of Iraqi prisoners. And so, the idea that we were going to interrogate these people and gain any kind of useful intelligence was almost immediately impossible.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what did you see at the hard sites in Abu Ghraib?
ERIC FAIR: I spent one day in the hard site. As an Arabic linguist with—I had worked for the National Security Agency, so I had some high-level security clearances. And so, the idea was that I would be an effective sort of interrogator in the hard site with what they were calling high-value detainees.
The hard site was a—most Americans have seen the photographs at this point. It was a two-tiered, open-bay prison. And many, many of the prisoners, the Iraqi prisoners, were naked. Whether they were being forced to stand by being handcuffed to their cell doors or whether they were just sort of being paraded around on the floor, whether they were moving from place to place, most—most of the prisoners either were naked or down to their underwear.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was required of interrogators? Like, what did they want to get from these high-value—so-called high-value targets?
ERIC FAIR: So the Army puts out what are called PIRs, priority intelligence requirements, and PIRs can cover a variety of different things. They can cover an intersection, a certain intersection that you want to gain intelligence from, or they can cover much larger strategic ideas. Now, the number one PIR in 2004 was the location of chemical weapons. So every interrogation, on some level, we had to at least address the issue of whether or not this prisoner knew anything about chemical weapons. And again, in 2004, many of us, myself included, were still under the impression that they were there. Now, it was clear very quickly that many of the prisoners did not have that kind of information, and so then the PIRs would go down based on whether or not they were part of an anti-coalition cell or IED emplacement or mortar teams. And the idea was that you would fill in the blanks.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how did they decide who should be interrogating these high-value targets? You, yourself, did not.
ERIC FAIR: I did not interrogate high-value targets. And I can’t say exactly how those teams were formed. By the time I got there in January of 2004, the setup had already been arranged. I was not placed on that team. I was placed on a different team; it was called FRE team, the former regime elements. And the idea was to interrogate and debrief people that had worked closely with Saddam Hussein.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I’d like you to read from Consequence, your book, using the Palestinian chair on the mayor of Fallujah—
ERIC FAIR: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —and what that meant. We’re talking to Eric Fair, Army veteran, who worked as a contract interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, author of the new book, Consequence: A Memoir. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: The legendary jazz pianist Randy Weston performing “Hi-Fly” on Democracy Now! Randy turned 90 years old this week. Happy birthday, Randy. To see our hour with Randy Weston, go to democracynow.org.