Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Pity the poor torturer

In Iraq, when Tony Lagouranis interrogated suspects, fear was his friend, his weapon. He saw it seep, dark and shameful, through the crotch of a man's pants as a dog closed in, barking. He smelled it in prisoners' sweat, a smoky odor, like a pot of lentils burning.

So writes Laura Blumenfeld in today’s Washington Post. But now,

The American interrogator was afraid. Of what and why, he couldn't say. He was riding the L train in Chicago, and his throat was closing.

"I tortured people," said Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. "You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that."

Lagouranis's tools included stress positions, a staged execution and hypothermia so extreme the detainees' lips turned purple. He has written an account of his experiences in a book, "Fear Up Harsh," which has been read by the Pentagon and will be published this week. Stephen Lewis, an interrogator who was deployed with Lagouranis, confirmed the account, and Staff Sgt. Shawn Campbell, who was Lagouranis's team leader and direct supervisor, said Lagouranis's assertions were "as true as true can get. It's all verifiable." John Sifton, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the group investigated many of Lagouranis's claims about abuses and independently corroborated them.

"At every point, there was part of me resisting, part of me enjoying," Lagouranis said. "Using dogs on someone, there was a tingling throughout my body. If you saw the reaction in the prisoner, it's thrilling."

Not long ago in Iraq, he felt "absolute power," he said, over men kept in cages. Lagouranis had forced a grandfather to kneel all night in the cold…

"I couldn't make sense of the moral system" in Iraq, he said. "I couldn't figure out what was right and wrong. There were no rules. They literally said, 'Be creative.' "

Now Lagouranis's power had dissolved into a weakness so fearful it dampened his upper lip. Sometimes, on the train, he has to get up and pace. But he can't escape.

Being an interrogator, Lagouranis discovered, can be torture. At first, he was eager to try coercive techniques. In training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructors stressed the Geneva Conventions, he recalled, while classmates privately admired Israeli and British methods. "The British were tough," Lagouranis said. "They seemed like real interrogators."

But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies' values.

But veteran torturers

whose wartime experiences stretch back decades, are more practiced at finding moral balance. They use denial, humor, indignation. Even so, these older men grapple with their own fears -- and with a clash of values.

James, 65, was one of Britain's most experienced interrogators in Northern Ireland. Starting in 1971, James said, he worked for the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), interrogating Irish nationalists Gerry Adams, Bobby Sands and others whom the British government suspected of being terrorists. Peter Taylor, a leading historian of the conflict in Northern Ireland, said he believes that "James's account is entirely credible."

"Yes, a bloke would get a cuff in the ear or he might brace against the wall. Yes, they had sleep deprivation," he said. "But we did not torture."

Once, IRA leader Brendan Hughes claimed that James had cocked a gun to his head. James does not deny it. "You fight fire with fire," he said,…"If it's going to save lives, you're entitled to use whatever means you can." How do you fight bad guys and stay good? "You don't. You can't."

According to an experienced Israeli torturer ‘who spoke on condition that he be identified by his code name, Sheriff’

"You have to play by different rules," the Israeli interrogator told an American visitor. "The terrorists want to use your own system to destroy you. What your president is doing is right."

He played good cop, and bad: "One day I was good. Next day I was bad. The prisoner said, 'Yesterday you were good. What happened today?' I told him we were short on manpower."

But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was "a very little violence." Enough to scare people but not so much that they'd collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. "Not torture."

Sometimes a prisoner would accuse Sheriff of torture. He tried to shift the moral burden by blaming the prisoner: "I would tell him this: 'I'm sorry. We prefer it the nice way. You leave us no choice.' "

"I've got a clean conscience because I rarely use it."

Sheriff's concerns, however, aren't legal, they're mortal. He carries a Beretta. In cafes, he faces the door. He ran into a former subject -- "a bit scary" -- knocking on the window of his car.

For all his bravado, quips and denials, Sheriff is afraid to have his full name published.

"I would not like to die in pain."

Life’s tough for a retired torturer.

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