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Ex-Abu Ghraib Interrogator: Israelis Trained U.S. to Use “Palestinian Chair” Torture Device

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As a former interrogator in Iraq working as a military contractor for the private security firm CACI, Eric Fair was stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison and in Fallujah in 2004. While in Fallujah, he witnessed a torture device known as the Palestinian chair. He writes in his new book, “Consequence: A Memoir,” that the chair was a way to immobilize prisoners in order to break them down both physically and mentally. He also wrote that the Israeli military taught them how to use the Palestinian chair during a joint training exercise. For more, we’re joined by Eric Fair, whose new book, “Consequence: A Memoir,” has just been published.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Eric Fair, Army veteran who worked as a contract interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as well as other places. He’s the author of the new book, Consequence: A Memoir. You’ve said that what happened outside Abu Ghraib, what contractors did, in terms of torture, was often worse than inside Abu Ghraib.

ERIC FAIR: That was certainly my experience. And again, I’m focusing on my own sort of behavior, my own sort of actions. So, for me, yes, personally, Fallujah was worse than Abu Ghraib.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you read for us from your book, Consequence?

ERIC FAIR: “We pass by the interrogation room where Tyner has been working on Raad Hussein. We haven’t heard Tyner scream or throw anything today. The door to the room, a flimsy sheet of plywood, has blown open in the hot desert wind. Inside, Raad Hussein is bound to the Palestinian chair. His hands are tied to his ankles. The chair forces him to lean forward in a crouch, forcing all of his weight onto his thighs. It’s as if he’s been trapped in the act of kneeling down to pray, his knees frozen just above the floor, his arms pinned below his legs. He is blindfolded. His head has collapsed into his chest. He wheezes and gasps for air. There is a pool of urine at his feet. He moans: too tired to cry, but in too much pain to remain silent.

“Henson comes out into the hallway and walks past the room. He covers the side of his face as he walks by and says, 'I don't even want to know.’

“I am silent. This is a sin. I know it as soon as I see it. There will be no atonement for it. In the coming years, I won’t have the audacity to seek it. Witnessing a man being tortured in the Palestinian chair requires the witness to either seek justice or cover his face. Like Henson in Fallujah, I’ll spend the rest of my life covering my face.”

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Eric Fair, author of Consequence: A Memoir. Why did they call it the Palestinian chair?

ERIC FAIR: I was never clear on the actual origin. The rumors within the interrogation cell were that Army interrogators had learned to use this chair by Israeli interrogators, and the Israeli interrogators presumably called it the Palestinian chair because they were torturing Palestinians in it. I certainly don’t know if that’s true. And quite frankly, for my own story, I’m not sure that it necessarily matters.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in the book, you write that interrogators in Iraq said the Israeli military taught them how to use the Palestinian chair during a joint training exercise. In response to this revelation in your book, Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said, quote, “The description by an American interrogator of a 'Palestinian chair' torture device that he says the Israeli military taught US soldiers how to use is disturbing and shameful on more than one level, suggesting as it does a means of torture used against Palestinian detainees eagerly copied by Americans seeking to interrogate and torture Iraqis.” So could you talk about that and also whether you know if the Palestinian chair was used outside Fallujah in other sites in Iraq?

ERIC FAIR: There were a variety of different ways to interrogate someone under what were being called enhanced interrogation. One of those enhanced interrogation techniques was confined spaces. And we know now that that was used by putting people in boxes and eventually putting insects in the box, and as well as closets. The Palestinian chair was simply a confined space. It was a way, rather than putting someone in a box and confining them inside, was to essentially confine them with the chair. And it was designed, like all enhanced interrogation techniques, to simply break the will, to simply break them down physically in this case and then essentially break their will.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you also sat in the Palestinian chair. Could you talk about what that experience was like?

ERIC FAIR: I did. I mean, recognizing that there was an actual device that we were using in interrogation was—I was surprised by that. And so, a close friend of mine and I made sure that we—I think we at one point had been tempted to use it. I did not use the chair. And that’s not to suggest that I wouldn’t, if I hadn’t stayed longer. But we thought that if we were going to use it, we should sit in it, and we should get a sense for what it was.

And so, we strapped each other in. And it locks you into what is essentially a squat, a permanent squat, from which you can’t recover. We only lasted about a minute. And physically, we may—we certainly could have lasted longer, but it was the—it’s the overwhelming sense of fear that a horrific sort of pain is on its way. And because your hands are bound, you recognize that there’s no way to recover from it. So, certainly, the physical pain is excruciating, but the mental and sort of emotional strain of knowing that you can’t—there’s simply no way to recover from that is what amounted to torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric, can you describe what torture session you engaged in haunts you most?

ERIC FAIR: You know, I wish that I could say one thing haunts me most, and I wish it were limited to one. But the entire experience—and I know other interrogators disagree with me vehemently on this, but the very act of simply forcing a detainee to violate his own will through interrogation is, in my mind—is, in my mind, torture. The one that certainly has, and appears in the book and has appeared in other articles that I’ve written, is the sleep deprivation I participated in in Fallujah. It was actually my last night in Fallujah; I’d been tasked to go back to Baghdad the next day to form another team. And another interrogator was working a sleep deprivation on a detainee. He was on the day shift, I was on the night shift. And so, when I came in, he asked me to, throughout the course of the night, every hour, to wake this detainee up, or this—I try to use the word “prisoner”—to wake this prisoner up.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the difference between detainee and prisoner, why you—

ERIC FAIR: Sure. Well, shifting gears, as a police officer, I could detain people almost as I saw fit, and, in some ways, to protect them. I could detain someone on the street if I thought that they were going to cross on the wrong spot, or I could detain someone who had just blown through a stop sign. That was not necessarily an arrest. Iraqis were not detainees. We were not detaining them. They were prisoners of war. Now, I recognize that people say we didn’t declare war, but anyone who was in Iraq in any of those years, to include right now, it’s a war. They were prisoners. They were prisoners of war.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry I interrupted you.

ERIC FAIR: That’s fine. So my—I went in that evening to utilize sleep deprivation. And he was in an isolated cell with no windows. He had already been asleep for an hour or two. I had been doing paperwork. And I walked in, and I flipped on the light and woke him up, stood him up, and I was going to take off his robe. It was cold. This would have been early spring, cold in Iraq. So I was going to take off his robe. And what I didn’t realize was that under his robe he was naked. And it was a shock to me. And it was an instant sense that I had violated his—his well-being. To say really nothing of torture, it was, in some ways, an assault.

Now, there are all sorts of discussions about sleep deprivation, about how I was sleep-deprived in—excuse me, sleep-deprived in basic training or people are sleep-deprived in college. That is not the same thing. Sleep deprivation, as I’ve said before, can be accomplished in a matter of hours. You can let someone go to sleep in a dark room with no windows, and you can wake them up in 15 or 20 minutes. They have no idea how long they’ve been asleep. And with no windows, they have no idea what time of day it is. You can let them go back to sleep, and you can wake them up in 20 minutes. They still have no idea. And they’ve since—within 45 minutes, they’ve lost all sense of time. Two or three hours later, you can convince this person that he’s been living for four or five days, when it’s really only been an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the point?

ERIC FAIR: The complete lack of hope. It is to strip away someone’s hope and to insert a different way of thinking into their mind, which would be my mind into theirs, so that they’re going to cooperate with me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece that you’ve often been asked when you realized that you had gone too far in what you did, in what you participated, in Iraq. You said in the piece that you’ve given different answers to that question, quote, “not”—this is you saying, “not out of a desire to deceive, but out of an inability to make sense of just how easy it [was] to become an American torturer.” Could you elaborate on that?

ERIC FAIR: Sure. I left—I quit my job with CACI about a month later after the sleep deprivation. And I left Iraq knowing that things had happened that I was not going to forget and that were going to leave an impact on me. But I was not—I had not processed it enough at that point to recognize or to admit or confess that I had tortured anyone. We were still calling these enhanced techniques. I had not done these things behind closed doors. We had filed paperwork. Most other interrogators, on some level, had used some of these techniques. And so I recognized that there was something dehumanizing about it, but I hadn’t made that leap. It has taken me 12 years to come to terms with this. When I first started writing in 2007, even then, even then as I was essentially confessing what I had done and saying I had done wrong, I was not ready to call it torture. I’m well aware of, by calling it torture, what I’m accusing people of. And I’m well aware of what I’m accusing myself of. But in the last couple of years, I’ve recognized that it’s the only other way to call—it’s the only word for it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, of course, the justification for it, and especially with respect to high-value detainees, was that valuable information was extracted from them using precisely these techniques, or torture.

ERIC FAIR: Sure. Information can be gathered in a number of different ways. My most effective interrogation in Iraq was a prisoner that simply wanted to cooperate. He walked in, and I was tired. It was near the end of my time in Fallujah. And I simply wanted to write a report and send him home. But within the first five minutes, he said that he wanted a piece of cake and some juice, and I spent hours with him gathering what was essentially critical intelligence information.

Now, certainly, the argument can be made—or, well, I shouldn’t say “certainly.” People have made the argument that torture can gain information. But this brings me back to what you started with, with the statements from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and those. But what you didn’t show was the next statement, was from Marco Rubio. And Marco Rubio said that he would not tell his enemies what we were doing, and he would not advertise what our techniques are. And that is exactly wrong. That is not the way the United States should operate. We should absolutely be telling people what we do. And we should absolutely be telling our prisoners what they will expect in detention, that they will be well taken care of, that they will be watched over until the end of the conflict. If they want to cooperate, they will be—we’re more than happy to speak with them, but we will not in any way torture.

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Next story from this daily show

Former Abu Ghraib Interrogator: Because of Trump & Cruz, Door Still “Wide Open” for U.S. to Torture

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