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What It Was Like to Be an Abu Ghraib Interrogator

An excerpt from Consequence, a new memoir from a former interrogator about torture and its aftermath.

by Eric Fair
Apr 4 2016, 12:00pm

A photo from inside an abandoned Abu Gharib facility in 2003. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

Consequence, a memoir by Eric Fair, is a powerful book from a man with a story to tell. While he was a private contractor in Iraq in 2004, he participated in the interrogation and what he now calls the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Gharib. This was after the infamous photos of naked detainees came to light, sparking an international scandal, but the authorities there were still making use of controversial techniques to extract information.

"At the time, we were calling it enhanced interrogation, but that's a phrase I don't use anymore," he wrote recently in the New York Times. "Stress positions, slaps to the face, and sleep deprivation were an outrage to the personal dignity of Iraqi prisoners. We humiliated and degraded them, and ourselves."

Later, Fair was haunted by guilt and dreams, and his conscience led him to speak out against America's use of torture in a number of op-eds and essays. Consequence is a confession, but it's also an examination of what leads ordinary men to commit acts of cruelty, and what happens to them afterward.

Below is an excerpt that details what it was like for Fair to arrive at Abu Gharib.

In the morning, we are taken to the Interrogation Control Element (ICE). The ICE is a plywood structure adjacent to what soldiers call the hard site, the facility where the Army holds high-value prisoners. Throughout the complex there are auditoriums, cafeterias, offices, meeting rooms, and cells where Iraqi prisoners and guards worked and lived during the days of Saddam. There is ample space, but Army engineers are unsure about the buildings' structural integrity. They're not sure how they will stand up to the mortar fire and rocket fire. They're afraid the buildings may collapse if hit too many times, so they build temporary plywood structures instead.

The interrogation booths are part of a small plywood structure just outside the ICE. There is a central hallway with six interrogation booths on each side. A two-way mirror runs the length of the hallway. We walk down the hallway and observe our first interrogations. The two-way mirrors don't work. The detainees stare at us as we make our way down the hall. Mortars land outside, and we scurry into one of Abu Ghraib's concrete buildings.

We are taken back to the ICE, where we receive our work assignments. Bagdasarov and I are put to work immediately. I am assigned to the team responsible for debriefing former regime elements. These are the men who worked closely with Saddam Hussein. Henson works with me as an analyst. It's never entirely clear how the Army determines whether any of us have the proper security clearance.

Some employees are told they have "interim clearances." Others are told they'll receive theirs soon. Others aren't told anything. No one from the Army ever asks. No one from the Army ever requests documentation. We let CACI handle it. I am handed a folder and told to be ready to get to work first thing tomorrow morning.

I walk back to the cell where we sleep. I pass by the dining facility, which isn't serving hot food. Loud pops. Some scurry for cover. Some don't. Those who don't seek cover laugh at those who do. They say, "That's outgoing, not incoming." These are US Army 120mm mortar teams. They are positioned in an open field not far from the dining facility. I watch and listen as they send mortars out into the neighborhoods surrounding Abu Ghraib.

I walk past Camp Ganci. Peter Ganci was a NYC firefighter killed on 9/11. The army has named a detention facility inside Abu Ghraib after him. Ganci holds four thousand prisoners. They live in tents. There are concrete bunkers near the edge of the camp where they can hide during mortar attacks. I stand near the barbed-wire fence. Prisoners gather and stare. The crowd grows. A young soldier in a guard tower says, "Careful, sir, I only have a few rounds." I walk away. There is a single incoming mortar round. The prisoners don't run to the concrete bunkers.

I make other friends, too. Friends like Ferdinand Ibabao.

Ferdinand is a former police officer from Guam. He served in the US Army's 25th Infantry Division. I meet him for the first time in mid-January, during a convoy back to Baghdad to collect supplies from CACIville. Kutcher recruited him to be our driver. Ferdinand is overweight. He makes fun of himself for this. But Ferdinand is not soft. He is strong and intimidating. He has thick black hair and a dark complexion. We make fun of him for looking like a fat Iraqi insurgent, but only because he allows it.

Ferdinand tells funny stories. He has his own catchphrase. When he slows down and says, "Hey, man," you know he is about to tell you the best part of the story.

He tells this story about driving back through the gates of Abu Ghraib after a supply run to Camp Victory. He says US soldiers in the guard tower mistook him for an Iraqi driver. He says "Hey, man." They ordered him to stop, but he thought they were shouting at another vehicle, so he drove faster. They fired warning shots into his engine block. Now, when Ferdinand's coming back into Abu Ghraib, we make him hide in the backseat under a blanket.

In late January, Ferdinand and I ride together during a convoy back to Baghdad. I'm glad to have him in the vehicle. I drive while he handles the foreign-made weapons. We head out onto the roads of Iraq and avoid the US Army convoys, which have become frequent targets of IEDs. We buy liquor in Baghdad and deliver it to the soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib. In return, the soldiers give us access to large caches of captured weaponry. The entire transaction is illegal in the eyes of the military, but no one cares, and no one disapproves. It's a fair exchange for everyone involved. Ferdinand knows a great deal about foreign weapons. He chooses the best. We head back out onto the roads of Iraq with other CACI employees and stop on an isolated stretch of highway so we can test-fire the weapons into a highway berm.

On one return trip to Abu Ghraib, we encounter an Army convoy that has been struck by an IED. The explosive device was buried in the road and paved over. There are no injuries, but the lead vehicle has been disabled. The convoy is waiting for reinforcements before advancing on a series of buildings in the distance whose occupants must have known something about the IED and the highway equipment used to conceal it. They say there are almost certainly more IEDs down the road.

Ferdinand insists that we move forward. The driver of another vehicle says we should either stay put or head back to Baghdad and wait until the road is cleared. Ferdinand says the road is never cleared. Ferdinand says the worst thing we can do is stay with the Army convoy because it will attract small-arms fire. We have no armor. Eventually the other driver decides to return to Baghdad.

That night at the prison, CACI leadership calls a meeting to discuss the incident on the road. A shouting match ensues about one group leaving another group behind. Someone says we need to follow orders. Someone else says no orders were given. There is another argument about whether or not we take orders from the Army. Ferdinand says, "You're not soldiers anymore. You don't give orders, you don't take orders." Someone says, "Who gives orders in the interrogation booth?" No one has an answer for this.

A photo from inside an abandoned Abu Gharib facility in 2003. Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images


Throughout the first two weeks of January, I go back to the interrogation booth and fail to answer PIRs. I turn in reports that say, "Detainee is a threat to coalition forces." Most interrogators are having the same results and writing the same reports. We begin to question the process.

There are doubts about the number and quality of the detainees being processed at Abu Ghraib. There are doubts about the effectiveness of an interrogation program that prohibits interrogators from spending more than an hour or two with any one detainee. There are doubts about the presence of chemical weapons. There are doubts about the security of the prison. The number of detainees at Abu Ghraib is growing. The number of interrogators is not. There are thousands of detainees who will never be processed. But there are no doubts or questions about the way we are handling detainees. My interrogations have been direct and civil. Like any interrogator, I'm certain prisoners have lied to me, but I don't have any means or reason to retaliate for this. There are too many interrogations to conduct. I simply move on to the next prisoner. I've raised my voice and become argumentative in the booth, but in January 2004, I have no reason to believe I or anyone else has done anything wrong.

Soon that will change. Higher-ups are not satisfied with results coming out of Abu Ghraib. We are still struggling to find chemical weapons. The number of IEDs and mortar attacks is increasing at an alarming rate throughout the country. Coalition forces are beginning to take casualties the way they did during the invasion. There is talk that fighting may last through the summer.

The Army calls a meeting in the ICE. The captain and the first sergeant stand up front and lead a class on interrogation techniques. They talk about planning and preparation, the approach phase, the questioning phase, and the termination phase. There is a lecture about proper reporting and paperwork. They hand out copies of the Army field manual covering interrogations. Every Army job has a "how-to" field manual. There are field manuals on cleaning weapons, maintaining military vehicles, and properly wearing the uniforms. There are always soldiers who can tell you exactly what the field manuals say. They tell you what it says about your uniform violation, or that you're using an unauthorized tool to clean your weapon, or that you failed to give your vehicle's engine enough time to warm up. The soldiers who rely on field manuals are called barracks lawyers. No one likes barracks lawyers. No one likes field manuals.

When the captain and first sergeant finish with the refresher class, another soldier stands up front and reads a directive about the proper way to spell "Abu Ghraib" on our interrogation reports. There must be uniformity. There are questions about this. Some say it needs to be spelled with a "y." Others insist there should be a silent "e." There is talk of teaching everyone how to write it out in Arabic script. Someone wants to know what the field manual says. This discussion goes on for nearly an hour. We'll revisit the proper spelling of Abu Ghraib in future meetings.

We take a break and reconvene for another class on creative solutions. The first sergeant says you can't just read questions. You can't just be a robot. You need to be creative. He talks about Hanns Scharff. Scharff was a German interrogator during World War II who questioned downed American pilots. He was fluent in English. He took his prisoners for walks through the woods. He befriended them. He gained confidence. He acquired information. After the war, his former prisoners invited him to Christmas dinner in the United States. He became an American citizen and eventually taught interrogation techniques to the US military. The first sergeant tells us to emulate Hanns Scharff. He says, "It doesn't mean take your prisoners for a walk in the woods. It means to think outside the fucking manual." The first sergeant introduces a civilian interrogator who has been getting results. He says we should pay attention and learn from the guys who are managing to get things done. He introduces Steven Stefanowicz.

There are naked men in the cells. Naked men handcuffed to chairs outside the cells. Naked men standing in lines.


I see what's outside the fucking manual for the first time later in the day, during my first visit to the hard site. Steven Stefanowicz takes me on a tour of the hard site. He chooses me because I speak Arabic, have a security clearance, and worked for the NSA. He says, "You're the kind of person we need working on the guys in the hard site." The hard site contains a relatively small number of Iraqi prisoners who have been deemed more valuable than the thousands of others languishing in the outdoor camps. The interrogators who work with detainees inside the hard site often spend weeks, as opposed to hours, questioning their targets. Those of us who haven't been inside the hard site think of it as a better work environment than the cold plywood interrogation booths.

The hard site is a two-tiered building with an open bay running down the middle allowing full view of all the cells. As Stefanowicz leads me into the building, I see naked men. There are naked men in the cells. Naked men handcuffed to chairs outside the cells. Naked men standing in lines. There is a man on the floor who is being told to get naked. When he refuses, someone grabs him by his pants and drags him along the floor on his back. The pants come off, and he is naked. The hard site is cold. Stefanowicz waits while I return to the ICE to retrieve my jacket.

Stefanowicz takes me to a windowless cell where he and an analyst have been working on a detainee. This detainee is from Yemen. The cell is long and narrow. I hear muffled music from inside the cell. There are two doors, one behind the other. Both doors are covered in plywood and spray-painted black. You can close the first door before opening the second. That way, you ensure no light enters the cell. Today, Stefanowicz opens both doors. The music is louder. Stefanowicz shuts it off and has a short conversation with a naked detainee. He tells him he will see him tomorrow. In Arabic, the detainee says, "Please, please, spend more time, no music, a little more time." The translator turns the music back on.

Stefanowicz says,"Annoying stuff, right?" He closes both doors and says, "We'll let him stew for a few days."

I tell Stefanowicz about System of a Down. I say, "Deafening crap, just total crap." Stefanowicz tells me that is exactly what he's looking for. I tell him I'll talk to Kutcher and Henson.

We walk back through the hard site, and I see more things. Stefanowicz says once I spend a few weeks learning the basics with the former regime element (FRE) guys I'll be able to come in here and help him out. He says, "We need your language. We need to be able to talk to these guys on our own." Then Stefanowicz shows me how to fill out the paperwork to gain approval for this type of interrogation. He says never to proceed without approval. We fill out forms and use words like "exposure," "sound," "light," "cold," "food," and "isolation." We put them in a bin where they'll wait for signatures. Stefanowicz says, "Be creative. Don't be stupid."

Later that afternoon, I have lunch with Ferdinand. We've agreed to meet and talk about the IED incident on the highway and the CACI meeting that ensued. We agree we made the right decision about moving forward on the road. We end up talking about Steven Stefanowicz. Ferdinand doesn't think Stefanowicz is qualified to do the job. He thinks he may have faked his résumé. He says, "You know the type." He tells me not to spend time with Stefanowicz. He says, "Hey, man, keep your distance." He tells me to stay away from the hard site.

I never go back inside the hard site. I try not to remember the things I didn't like. The smell is something I try not to remember. The sound is something I try not to remember. The naked man is something I try not to remember. The dark cell is something I try not to remember. I gave Stefanowicz a copy of the deafening music. I try not to remember that, either.

Consequence: A Memoir, by Eric Fair, comes out from Holt on April 5. Buy it here.

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