- Eric FairArmy veteran who worked as a contract interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He is the author of the new book, Consequence: A Memoir.
As Republican presidential candidates promise to bring back the torture techniques used under the George W. Bush administration, we speak with one of the men who actually carried out these policies. 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. His new book, “Consequence: A Memoir,” has just been published.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Donald Trump. This was after the Brussels attacks, Donald Trump repeating his endorsement of the use of waterboarding of suspects.
DONALD TRUMP: I’m not looking for breaking news on your show, but frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws and—or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine. And if they want to do—as long as it’s with—because, you know, we work within laws. They don’t work within laws. They have no laws. We work within laws. The waterboarding would be fine. And if they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people. And we have to be smart, and we have to be tough, and we can’t be soft and weak, which is what we are right now.
AMY GOODMAN: “We can’t be soft and weak,” as he endorses torture.
ERIC FAIR: Well, there are—I don’t even know where to begin. “We can’t be soft and weak,” from a non-veteran. I think veterans, in general, get so frustrated with this tough talk and this idea that these men—and, quite frankly, some women—have any idea what the difference between soft and weak and tough and hard is. This is not about being soft and weak; this is about being smart. And far more importantly, this is about—this is about being Americans, and it’s about adhering to the values that make us Americans—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And those—I’m not suggesting that we read the Miranda rights to prisoners of war or that we give them constitutional rights, but we absolutely are obligated to treat them humanely.
AMY GOODMAN: Abu Ghraib, what it meant to the Iraqis, and the fact that you were doing this there?
ERIC FAIR: I’ve suggested that the word “Alcatraz” has kind of a similar meaning to Americans. So Americans hear the term “Alcatraz,” and they think of a difficult prison. But over the course of the last few years, I’ve recognized that that’s not true, that we don’t really have a word in the English language that sounds the same way as Abu Ghraib for Iraqis. Many Iraqis that I spoke to, interrogated at Abu Ghraib, had been there under Saddam Hussein, and it had been a return. It may very well—
AMY GOODMAN: Had been imprisoned there?
ERIC FAIR: Had been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein, either for being Shia or they had fled during the Iran-Iraq War, for any number of different reasons—or for no reason at all. So, Abu Ghraib had a—the idea that we would empty out that prison and turn it back into a prisoner of war camp was the very definition of foolish.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you recall when you first saw the images, the first images that were released from Abu Ghraib in Sy Hersh’s The New Yorker piece, and why you think, in the U.S., people were so shocked by those images?
ERIC FAIR: I was in Fallujah at the time. We had access to Armed Forces Network. So I’m not sure that I saw it as breaking news, but we eventually kind of felt the story coming out and people talking about it. And as I’ve said before, we weren’t shocked, and so we weren’t afraid to see this stuff coming out, because we had figured all along that people knew about this. I think in some ways we were shocked that the American people were so shocked and that they had this kind of idea—or that they were so ignorant about what was going on. Now, some of the images that we saw were unfamiliar to me. Mock execution that showed up and the use of dogs were not things that I had seen or done. But I’m also not here to suggest that I would not have done those things. Right? The story remains about my confession of my own failures. If someone had come into my interrogation booth with a dog and said, “This is a useful tool,” I may very well—may very well have used it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in writing this book, could you say a little about what you want Americans to learn from it, your audiences who read the book?
ERIC FAIR: Well, I think any—drone strikes have become the new topic. And I think if Americans had a better sense of what a drone strike really was, if we saw digital photographs of the after-effects of a drone strike up close, I think we’d be having an enormous discussion about the efficacy of drone strikes, or certainly a different discussion. And I think we need to have a different discussion about issues like interrogation. A year or two ago, people—as I got ready to publish this book, people—the question being asked was “Why are we still talking about this? Why is this still an issue?” Well, we’ve seen, with the clips from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and many others, that aggressive interrogation and torture and enhanced techniques remain something that—it’s a door that is still wide open. Those of us who were there need to tell our stories. We need to be honest about it, and we need to let the American people have a really good look at what this stuff was.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about this being a confession, and you talk about your religious background. A confession is for sins. Are these crimes? Do you feel you committed crimes?
ERIC FAIR: So, this will sound like a dodge, but as the police officer, when I pulled someone over or pulled them on the side of the street, I did not ask them whether or not a felt they had committed a crime. Their sort of view in that process meant nothing. It was to be—it was up to me, and it was up to what would then essentially be a judge. I feel the same way about this sort of process. I have an absolute obligation to be as honest and as clear as I possibly can with these things. That being said, if a friend of mine came to me as a former police officer and said, “Eric, I have these memories. I did these things. What’s the best way not to be prosecuted?” the last thing I would do is say, “Write a book.” Right? I would not. So I’m aware. I recognize your question, and I know the possibilities here, but that’s not something that has anything to do—my opinion in there means really nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: If you saw the people do what you saw them do in places like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, your—the other interrogators, people who work for CACI or the U.S. military, would you arrest them if you were a policeman?
ERIC FAIR: No, I would not have. And it sort of—I don’t know if that brings us back or starts a whole new discussion. But again, when we were there in Iraq, we were never under the impression that we were doing anything illegal. Whether or not we thought we were doing something wrong, I think, is a much broader question. I think some, like me, were confused and not certain. Others quit immediately. There were people that showed up, saw it, quit, and then others who certainly stayed long-term.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Hanns Scharff. Explain who he is.
ERIC FAIR: So, Hanns Scharff was a Nazi interrogator in World War II, and he was known specifically for interrogating downed American pilots and airmen. And Hanns Scharff became famous for never using any aggressive techniques. And he was, quite frankly, the most effective Nazi interrogator. And he would take the American pilots for walks in the woods, and he would get to know—he would talk to them about their families. He had lived in the United States, so he could relate to them in terms of the universities they had gone to. And they formed relationships. And he ended up acquiring an enormous amount of valuable intelligence information. Now, those relationships were so good that he had developed that after the war, that a number of the Americans that he had actually interrogated invited him back over to the United States for Christmas dinner. And he eventually became a U.S. citizen, naturalized U.S. citizen, and went on to teach interrogation, I believe, to the U.S. Air Force.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you think, Eric Fair? Do you believe that people who sanctioned these methods should in any sense be charged?
ERIC FAIR: Again, that is not why I’ve written this book. And that’s not—I recognize the value of that discussion, and I’m not suggesting that it’s one that shouldn’t be had out in the open. But that’s—my experience doesn’t speak to that issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you ever stunned by someone who came and left and said, “I can’t do this”?
ERIC FAIR: If I’m being honest, for the people that quit immediately, we thought negatively of them, and we thought that they were simply not up to the task, which was one of the reasons why, even as I began to have my own sort of moral questions, that I hung on as long as I did. There was a view we—most of us had been soldiers and marines, and the idea that you quit something didn’t sit well with all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: So how do you live with this now? How does this affect you physically and emotionally?
ERIC FAIR: Well, it’s something that I continue to live with every day. And I suspect that I will, and I suspect that I should. I mean, this clearly has had some negative effects on me, but nothing like the negative effects of the prisoners that we encountered in Iraq, which, again, is then—it then circles back to why I continue to struggle. I know that a part of me is still with those prisoners, those that are alive, with those prisoners in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, “those that are alive.”
ERIC FAIR: Well, the violence that ensued in Iraq over the—this was 2004, when I was there. The number of people that were killed—and again, maybe most Americans don’t like to think about this, but the bloodletting was on a biblical scale, in terms of 2005, 2006, 2007. I can’t say for sure—I don’t know—but I suspect that certainly some of the people that I talked to became victims of that violence.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And large parts—before we conclude, large parts of the later chapters of your memoir are redacted. Could you explain who’s responsible for that—
ERIC FAIR: Sure.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —and why those bits were redacted?
ERIC FAIR: So I talked about not wanting to quit, because it was part of sort of who we had been taught to be. And so, even though when I did leave Iraq the first time, my intention was to return a second. And so, the second time that I returned, in 2005, was with the National Security Agency. I had actually worked for them very briefly prior to my first deployment, so this was my second stint. Now, anytime you have publish anything about the National Security Agency, you’re required to go through publication review. And I had signed that agreement, and I—so I fulfilled my obligation. And this—the redacted sections are what the NSA essentially decided was not something for the public.
AMY GOODMAN: How many of those at Abu Ghraib did you feel were innocent? The Red Cross would estimate between 70 and 90 percent of the prisoners in—had been arrested by mistake.
ERIC FAIR: Yeah, there are—there are so many different ways to answer that question. Right? Who exactly was guilty at Abu Ghraib? Why were they there in the first place? Why were they in prison? Certainly, there were men in that prison, some of whom I talked to, deserved, quite frankly, to spend the rest of their lives in a cell. But as far as who was innocent and who was guilty, what exactly—they were Iraqis. It was their country. Right? And they absolutely should have been trying to oust us. So, I’ve heard those percentages, and I recognize, again, what you’re getting at, but I don’t like the idea that it was OK to sort of torture some of these guys who were guilty. But it was not. It was simply wrong to do it to anyone who was there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in—you also say that in the context of the violence that was inflicted on Iraqis, you say, quote, “It’s a just punishment for us that we suffer some of the consequences.” So could you say what you think the consequences for the United States and people here have been?
ERIC FAIR: I don’t think—I don’t think that story is written yet. And I think that should be frightening, on some level. I had ended my very first opinion piece in 2007 by suggesting that the consequences of imprisoning large numbers of people are typically huge. And the names that you can start ticking off in terms of people that spent time in oppressive prison environments and then came on to be just monsters in history is a long list. We are 12—12 years removed from Abu Ghraib. We are zero years removed from Guantánamo Bay. There remain detention facilities in places like Afghanistan and probably Iraq. I don’t know what those consequences are. Some of them at this point are unavoidable. But I do feel that if we address this issue, and that we do have a significant change and we do go back to essentially those core values that we absolutely will treat prisoners of war humanely, and that we broadcast that, that we can shift the narrative.
AMY GOODMAN: Eric Fair, thank you for being with us, Army veteran who worked as a contract negotiator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as well as other places. He worked for CACI. He is the author of the new book, Consequence: A Memoir.
This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Melissa Harris-Perry in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Healers” by Randy Weston. Happy 90th birthday, Randy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.