Tony Lagouranis doesn’t fit the profile of a person likely to go wrong by following orders. He’s lived a footloose life unconstrained by a desire for professional advancement, for the approval of superiors, even for a comfortable home. A freethinker, he read the great works of Western civilization in college and mastered classical languages. It was his desire to learn Arabic as well that took him to Iraq.
And there, as an army interrogator, he tortured detainees for information he admits they rarely had. Since leaving Iraq he’s taken this story public, doing battle on national television against the war’s architects for giving him the orders he regrets he obeyed.
Born in Chicago to restless parents (his father worked for a chain of hotels), Lagouranis guesses he attended 10 or 11 schools before graduating from high school in 1987 in New York City. After a year of college he took off, picking up construction and short-order cook jobs as he traveled the country. He kept coming back to Santa Fe, however, and in 1994 he enrolled in its St. John’s College, whose curriculum is based entirely on the Great Books, read in roughly chronological order. Lagouranis discovered he had a facility for languages: he enjoyed ancient Greek and found Hebrew easy. He tried to learn Arabic on his own, but without a class and a regular teacher he found it more difficult.
In early 2001, four years after graduating from St. John’s, he decided he’d tackle Arabic again, in part because he thought the Arab world was misunderstood in the West. Burdened by “massive student loans,” he met a former army interrogator who’d learned Russian and German in the army while getting his own student loans repaid. “It just sounded like a good idea,” Lagouranis says. “I realized I could put Arabic in my contract and join the army for five years.”
The United States was at peace then. Lagouranis was rebounding from a frustrating experience in Tunisia, where he’d worked on an archaeological dig and taught English but couldn’t conquer the bureaucratic requirements for residency and therefore was never paid. On his return to the United States he’d landed a job near O’Hare airport helping corporations claim refunds on import duties, a job he describes as “mind-numbing.”
“I went in [to the army recruiting office] saying, ‘I want Arabic,’ and there aren’t many choices if you want a language. You can go in as simply a linguist, which will mean that later you’ll be assigned to another job–it’s sort of a vague category. Or you can go in as a signals intercept person, where you sit with headphones and listen to phone conversations. Or you can be an interrogator.” The linguist and signals intercept jobs required top-secret security clearance, and Lagouranis’s student loans and credit rating stood in the way. “Apparently the idea is that if you owe money then you are susceptible to foreign agents. So they wouldn’t let me apply for secret security clearance. So I said, ‘Fine.’ I didn’t really think about that decision at all. We weren’t at war. The idea that I would actually ever interrogate somebody seemed so remote.”
After basic training he was sent to Fort Huachuca in Arizona for interrogation school, where the curriculum was largely based on conventional warfare. Lagouranis learned a great deal, for instance, about Soviet weapons systems. “We did like one day on approaches, the method you use to break down the prisoner, to break his psychological defenses. They told us in training that 90 percent of prisoners will break on the direct approach, which is simply asking a direct question–you don’t have to run an approach. They said if a prisoner doesn’t break you usually have enough detainees that you can just ignore that person and talk to someone else.”
Lagouranis believes this thinking was based on the experience of the gulf war, when captured Iraqi prisoners were often willing to cooperate. “Their questions were totally different than what we would ask in Iraq. They were asking like, ‘How many T72 tanks does this unit have? Where are you getting spare parts? How well are your trucks maintained?’–things that we would never ask to break an insurgency.”
Lagouranis also studied the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners. “We were told, ‘You can’t use any coercive tactics. There can be no negative repercussions for a prisoner who isn’t cooperating with you.'”
After interrogator’s school, Lagouranis spent 15 months learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California. In the summer of 2003, about four months after the invasion of Iraq, he was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where he joined the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, which contained soldiers who’d already served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He got more training there, this time with more realistic scenarios, and he also began hearing stories from the veterans of more abusive approaches–though he figured some were boastful exaggeration.
“They were talking about using sexual humiliation on these guys, or certain stress positions they had used, or in Afghanistan they would make the guy sit in the snow naked for long periods of time. They said that the detainees that they had were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, which I continued to hear in Iraq too.”
He arrived in Iraq in January 2004 and was stationed at Abu Ghraib, landing there ten days after Specialist Joseph Darby delivered the now infamous photographs of prisoner abuse to army investigators. “When we got there we didn’t know what had happened, but the army knew, and they were making sure that things were cleaned up at Abu Ghraib.”
Lagouranis says his own interrogations there were just talking, “right out of the army field manual.” Some of the older interrogators, however, were still using harsher methods. Some detainees judged to be uncooperative were stripped of their mattress, blankets, and extra clothing to expose them to the cold in their cells. Others were kept in isolation for months at a time and hooded when they were taken to the interrogation booths, so that they’d see no one but their interrogators. Nevertheless, it seemed to Lagouranis that the administration of Abu Ghraib was getting progressively cleaner. Also, it was common knowledge that the CIA was torturing prisoners, he says, so anything the army did paled by comparison.
Not long after his arrival, Lagouranis was assigned to a special projects team interrogating people who’d been involved with hiding Saddam Hussein, some of them just peripheral figures “who happened to brush up against Saddam Hussein and maybe they had information, but they weren’t necessarily bad guys.” A relative of a high-level Baathist complained to Lagouranis that he’d been tortured. “He told me that when he was arrested he was beaten and forced to stand against a wall and kneel for days, and he was kept from sleeping, and they’d come in occasionally and beat him up and kick him.
“He begged me to take the sandbag off his head so he could look at the sun, just like walk around outside a little bit. I gave him the opportunity to do that. This guy was really a mess. Isolation is a really terrible thing for people.
“I filed an abuse report on this guy. They had like a standard form, like a memo someone had made up internally at Abu Ghraib, and so I asked my superior for that form, and I went in and did a specific interrogation to ask this guy about that abuse. The guy was really reluctant to talk about it, he said to forget it, he just didn’t want any more trouble for himself. But I got it out of him. I wrote the abuse report and gave it to my superior. And that abuse report, as far as I know, has disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
After roughly a month at the prison, Lagouranis was transferred to a four-man mobile interrogation team. He had brief stints at Al Asad Air Force Base and again at Abu Ghraib, and then he was assigned to Mosul; it was there that he began to torture the men he was interrogating.
“We were working for this chief warrant officer who just wanted to go as far as he could. He handed us a piece of paper called an IROE–interrogation rules of engagement. It listed the things that the Pentagon said were OK to use during interrogations, but it was also sort of an open-ended document–it encouraged the interrogator to be creative.
“For instance, one technique that was approved was called environmental manipulation. It’s really unclear what that means exactly. He took it to mean that we could leave them outside in the cold rain, or we could blast rock music and bombard them with strobe lights for days at a time, or use those things in combination. The document didn’t really give us guidance, although that is what it was meant for.
“So when he would tell us to do things, we would go to this document in order to determine whether it was legal or illegal.” Having been told that the detainees were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, Lagouranis thought his training in the law was not applicable. “We were in this murky area. . . . They always tell you, if you’re given an illegal order it’s your duty to refuse to follow it, but we were in a place that we didn’t know what the legal limit was, so we didn’t know what to do.” To protect himself, Lagouranis wrote up an interrogation plan for each detainee, had the warrant officer sign it, and put it in the detainee’s file.
The site had been understaffed before Lagouranis’s mobile interrogation team arrived. “Once we got there I think the chief warrant officer saw the opportunity to institute the things that he wanted to do. One of those things was a 24-hour operation. He was only running a 12-hour operation before that. He put us on shifts, and that way you could maintain the sleep deprivation, you could maintain stress positions all night. . . . So within a week of our arriving there he started instituting these harsher tactics.”
The warrant officer secured a shipping container that became the unit’s interrogation booth. Stress positions became standard operating procedure. They included standing for long periods; kneeling on concrete, gravel, or plywood; and crawling across gravel. “Another one we’d use was where they would have their back against the wall and their knees bent at right angles. We used to do that as an exercise in basic training and it gets real painful after a few minutes, but we’d make the prisoners do that for a long time.
“We had three different strobe lights going at once, and the prisoner would be in a stress position, and it was cold, so he’d be freezing.” At times the detainees were exposed directly to the strobe lighting, but at other times they wore goggles that obscured vision but allowed the pulsating light to enter. The music in the shipping container was applied by means of a boom box turned up to maximum volume. “We were supposed to be in there the entire time with the prisoner, but we could walk out and shut the door if we wanted. I would go outside and just sit down, outside the shipping container. I wouldn’t hear it that much. We started out using this heavy metal music that we got from the MPs, but at two in the morning I’d put on James Taylor ’cause I just didn’t want to hear shit like that anymore.
“I didn’t handle the dogs. We had professional dog handlers. They were MPs who lived right next to the compound where we were doing this, so I would just go and wake them up. We had like a signal I would give him to cue the dog to lunge and bark at the prisoner. The prisoner would have blacked-out goggles on so he couldn’t see that the dog was restrained, he couldn’t see that the dog had a muzzle on, he just knew there was a dog in the room with him and that it was a big angry dog.
“What usually happened was the prisoner would be terrified the first time the dog became aggressive. But then that effect wore off–he figured out that the dog wasn’t going to attack him. So maybe you’d get the prisoner totally terrified for like five seconds and he would piss his pants, literally. Then after that there was nothing. So it wasn’t effective at all, but the chief warrant officer kept telling us to do this so we did it.”
Though some prisoners complained, Lagouranis thinks others took the ill treatment for granted–“like this is what happens when you’re detained. If you think about Iraq and what Iraqis would expect from being arrested under Saddam Hussein or whatever, I think they probably felt they were getting it pretty easy, especially because the treatment they had at our hands was a lot better than they got from the detainee unit. We were getting prisoners who had gotten seriously fucked up. We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk. And so they got to us and we were playing James Taylor for them–I think they probably weren’t that upset about what we were doing. Not that I’m excusing what I’m doing, but their reaction was not very severe to it.”
Lagouranis says the MPs were “willing and enthusiastic participants in all this stuff. A lot of the guys that we worked with were former prison guards or they were reservists who were prison guards in their civilian life. They loved it. They totally wanted to be involved in interrogations. It actually was a problem sometimes. I remember I would be standing guard at three in the morning outside of the shipping container with a prisoner inside and people would come by and they would know what was going on because they could hear the music and maybe see the lights. And they’d want to join in. So I’d have four sergeants standing around me, and I’m a specialist, and they want to go and fuck the guy up, and I would have to control these guys who outrank me and outnumber me and they have weapons and I don’t–because I’m guarding a prisoner I don’t have a weapon. It got really hairy sometimes and I couldn’t call for help because there was nobody around. I remember at one point the MPs came over from the facility and they were banging on the shipping container, one guy got on top and he was jumping up and down, they were throwing rocks at it, they were going inside and yelling at the guy. And I was like, ‘How do I control this situation?'”
Lagouranis says the MPs didn’t know anything about individual detainees, most of whom, in Lagouranis’s estimation, had nothing to do with the insurgency. “The MPs don’t read the paperwork, they don’t talk to the guy, they don’t know anything about it, other than they think this is a guy who’s been mortaring us and so they hate him. They’ll abuse him if they can. They can do that in many ways. They can refuse his request for medical attention, refuse his request to go to the bathroom–that was really common–refuse his request for a blanket.”
He says, “We had a lot of prisoners to deal with . . . so most of the prisoners didn’t get the full treatment for as long as the warrant officer would have liked. But there were two brothers in particular that we were going on pretty hard. . . . We had some significant evidence on these guys which was so rare–we almost never had evidence on anybody. . . . We went on them hard for almost a month, I think, and these guys were just completely broken down, physically, mentally, by the end of it. One guy walked like a 90-year-old man when he was done. He was an ex-army guy, he was a real healthy young man when he came in, and by the end he was a mess. Psychologically they couldn’t focus on things. Their emotions would change all the time. They were obviously showing signs of deterioration.”
If a man can’t focus, can he answer questions? “It made interrogation harder, but we weren’t getting information from these guys anyway. The person who was ordering all this stuff, the chief warrant officer, he never saw these prisoners, so there was no way for him to understand what was going on.” The warrant officer’s response to a lack of information, Lagouranis says, was simply to add another layer of abuse.
In April 2004 the New Yorker and 60 Minutes II broke the story of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Not long after those infamous photos were published, Lagouranis was transferred from Mosul back to Abu Ghraib. CNN broadcasts played constantly in the area where the interrogators wrote their reports, and it was there, while watching congressional hearings, that Lagouranis heard Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld say that the detainees in Iraq were being treated according to the Geneva Conventions. “I also heard [Lieutenant General Ricardo] Sanchez say that dogs were never authorized to be used in Iraq.” This testimony flatly contradicted guidelines for interrogations that Sanchez, the military commander in Iraq, had issued in September and October of 2003.
“That’s when I got really pissed,” Lagouranis says. “I was like, ‘Shit, these guys are fucking us over.'”
Not long thereafter, the army’s Criminal Investigation Division, investigating torture committed by the Abu Ghraib MPs, called in Lagouranis to answer questions about a prisoner who’d been abused by the MPs later charged in the scandal. Lagouranis says he wasn’t able to help them with that case because he hadn’t interrogated the detainee, but he did report everything he had done in the shipping container in Mosul and all that he had witnessed there. He also mentioned the earlier report he’d filed with CID on the high-level Baathist who’d been tortured at Abu Ghraib.
He heard nothing further before he was transferred to Kalsu, a base in Iskandariyah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, where the marines were in charge of a new detention facility. “When the scandal broke, it gave us the power to refuse to do any harsh tactics,” Lagouranis recalls, “but at that base I saw the most egregious abuse. After the scandal broke, they stopped torturing people in prisons and they would torture them before they got to the prison. They would either torture them in their homes or they would take them to a remote location . . . The marines had a location–they called it the ‘meat factory’–they would bring them there and they would torture them for 24 or 48 hours before they brought them to us, and they were using techniques like water boarding, mock execution, they were beating them up, breaking their bones, whatever. It was bad, in particular the First Recon–they’re sort of like marine special forces, an elite unit [attached to the 24th Marine Exped-itionary Unit, known as 24th MEU]. Every time they went on a raid it didn’t matter who they were bringing back, they would just fuck these guys up. Old men, 15-year-old kids, they all came with bruises and broken bones. One guy came with a blister on the back of his leg. It was big, it was horrible, a burn blister. They’d made him sit on the exhaust pipe of a running truck.
“And I was writing abuse reports during that time about these guys and I was sending it up through the marine chain of command. . . . I was taking the prisoner’s statements, I was making my own statements, I was taking photographs, and those photographs were put in the medical files of the detainees.
“No one ever came to look at those medical files, no one ever came to talk to the prisoners, no one ever came to interview me about this stuff. But they were assuring me that these things were going to be investigated.”
In November, after two months at Kalsu, Lagouranis was sent to Fallujah. American forces had launched a major offensive to secure the city, and corpses were being taken to an agricultural storage facility that the Americans called “the potato factory.” Lagouranis was assigned to go through the pockets and clothing of the dead to attempt to identify them and gather intelligence from their papers. The Defense Department had provided retinal scanners to aid identification, Lagouranis says, but the technology wasn’t useful. The bodies, many having lain in the street for a week or more decomposing and being picked over by animals, often had no eyes–“just sockets with maggots.” The marines were in protracted negotiations with the local authorities and imams over how and where the bodies should be buried, and until that was settled they stacked up. “It was terrible. We were handling these dead bodies all day. We are like living with them, maggots and flies everywhere. We couldn’t shower–there was no shower there. We couldn’t wash our clothes.” Lagouranis lived that way for a month. He estimates there were 500 bodies in the warehouse by the time he left.
He left Iraq in December 2004. In January 2005 he was back at Fort Gordon in Georgia, angered and frustrated by what he’d seen and done.
“The idea with interrogation–you are taught this all the time–is that you are supposed to get a small piece of information and that piece is going to be synthesized into a big picture. And I don’t think that is happening. . . . I would get a prisoner whose brother was in another detention facility. I had no access to the interrogation reports for his brother. I would write intelligence reports, the prisoner would then be sent back to Abu Ghraib, and often my reports would not go with him. Information was being lost all over the place. Even though the army had software set up for sharing information by interrogators and the entire intelligence community, commanders would set up their own. So we had these databases that couldn’t communicate with each other. When I was in Abu Ghraib I couldn’t even access the MP database to find out who was in Abu Ghraib. Everything was ridiculously difficult. It made no sense.
“I would write intelligence reports and someone would mention the name of somebody, a neighbor, with no incriminating information at all. And the analyst would get ahold of that and that person would become a target and I would be talking to that person the next week–and for what? And I would call up the analyst and say, ‘Why am I talking to this guy?’ And he would quote my report out of context and tell me this was why. It just made no sense.”
Lagouranis says that generating reports, even on the most insignificant matters, became a goal for some interrogators, and they were rewarded with medals for the number of reports generated. After Lagouranis explained to his team leader that a certain detainee who had harbored a fugitive had no more information to give, the officer came in to probe further. “He’s asking him like, ‘What kind of soda does this guy drink? Does he drink Coke or Diet Coke?’ If he had told him, we would have published an intelligence report on it.”
In Fallujah, one of the goals of identifying the corpses was to determine how many foreigners were involved in the insurgency there. “The army and MI guys were squeezing everything they could out of these bodies to make them foreigners. If a guy had a shirt that was made in Lebanon the guy was Lebanese. If they found a Koran on him that was printed in Algeria then he was Algerian. If they found currency on him that was Syrian–which wasn’t uncommon because Iraqi currency was worthless–he was Syrian. So they published those numbers too–this is how many foreign fighters were among the dead in Fallujah.”
“When we first got there,” Lagouranis recalls, “we went through all the buildings on the site, and in one of them somebody noticed that there were all these boxes of glycerin soap and that somebody had been doing something on the stove. It looked to me like they were rendering fat, for whatever reason. [Rendering fat is the process of cooking fatty parts of meat in order to extract oil to cook and flavor some other dish.] But I think somebody had just seen the movie Fight Club and realized that you could take the glycerin out of the soap and make a bomb, which was just stupid. And so they decided that someone was making IEDs [improvised explosive devices] there, so what they did was just put a bomb in that kitchen and blew it up. There were a bunch of security guys who were on that site when we first got there. So we interrogated all the security guards. One guy who was the brother of the boss of the place, they decided to arrest him, even though he was like, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about. We run an aid station here.’ They have all this medicine, there was a Red Crescent flag flying up there, they obviously had an aid station. He said, ‘The Americans came and gave us the soap because we’re an aid station.’ I believed him, but they arrested him and sent him off. Then the brother comes, he’s the head of this delegation–a bunch of guys in suits from the Agriculture Ministry come to protest what we were doing with the site. They arrest him and they send him off. Later I saw the report that they generated of the entire operation in Fallujah. One bullet point was, ‘IED factory found and destroyed in the potato factory.'”
Lagouranis says he once interrogated four brothers who’d been arrested during a general search because soldiers had found a pole in their house that they’d argued could be used for sighting targets for mortars. The brothers, interrogated separately by Lagouranis, contended they used it to measure the depth of water in a canal, and there was nothing incriminating in the house. Though he was convinced they were telling the truth, his superiors would not release the men. A man arrested because he had a cell phone and a shovel met a similar fate. The army contended the shovel could be used to plant an IED and the cell phone could be used to help set it off, and though Lagouranis bought his explanation, nothing he said shook that belief. The army wanted to be able to boast about the number of terrorists apprehended, and the four brothers with the striped stick, the two who ran the aid station at the potato factory, and the man with the shovel were close enough.
The vast majority of the men and women in Lagouranis’s MI brigade remained at Abu Ghraib and a nearby base for their entire tour, and at the end of that year they published an intelligence report he says was full of empty claims. “It was like, ‘The top ten detainees and what we got out of them,'” Lagouranis says. “It was all bullshit. And that’s for an entire year of interrogating thousands of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They got nothing out of that place. That’s not just my assessment–you can talk to anybody I worked with over there. The main reason for that is because 90 or 95 percent of the people we got had nothing to do with the insurgency. And if they did we didn’t have any good evidence on them. And the detainees knew that and they knew they didn’t have to talk to us.” A February 2004 Red Cross report based on the estimates of coalition intelligence officers said that 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners were innocent.
“I got nothing in Iraq,” says Lagouranis. “Zero.”
Back at Fort Gordon, Lagouranis says, “I lost my mind a little bit. Panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares. I was shaking all the time. Plus I was really angry. I was being pretty insubordinate. After you come back they do a lot of patting you on the back and calling you hero and they are handing out medals to everybody, and I was like ‘Fuck you guys. Our mission over there was bullshit. Everything we did was bullshit.’ And they couldn’t really say anything to me–because I was right, first of all, and second of all they had all spent the entire time at Abu Ghraib, whereas I had been knee deep in dead bodies.
“So they were like, ‘What are we going to do with this Lagouranis guy?’ I was obviously a mess, too. So they got me out. They gave me an honorable discharge, which was good.”
Lagouranis left the army in mid-July of 2005, house-sat briefly in New Orleans for some friends, and returned to Chicago in August. “I get off the train and I’m feeling really horrible and off balance. My girlfriend brings me back and puts me in her bed and she goes to work. I’m laying there trying to sleep and I’m hearing this klezmer music coming from the neighbors. All day long I was hearing this terrible music. It was driving me nuts. Then I saw a ghost in the room. My girlfriend comes back and I’m complaining about the music and now it was Bill Monroe playing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and I’m like, ‘You can’t hear that?’ She’s telling me, ‘You’re going crazy.’ So then she goes to sleep and then cockroaches start swarming all over the ceiling.
“I think it was because I had been on Zoloft and Welbutrin and decided to stop taking that stuff, and I guess you’re not supposed to just stop. So for three days and nights I didn’t sleep and I’m seeing things and hearing things. I’m hearing talk radio–it’s news about Iraq. It was in my head but it didn’t sound like it was in my head. Even after she told me I was hearing this stuff, I didn’t believe it. I would walk around her house and her refrigerator would be singing German folk songs. I’d step out on the back porch and I’d hear Lou Rawls. It should have been obvious to me that I was losing it, but I kept trying to convince myself that I really am hearing this stuff. So I ended up in the emergency room at the VA. . . . Finally I just fell asleep from exhaustion and then I was OK.”
While the voices in his head were gone, his anger was not. Even before he left the army he’d let a friend interview him for KALW, the NPR outlet in San Francisco. Then a lawyer in New York he knew interviewed him in connection with a civil case that involved Iraqi detainees and American contractors. Frontline knew something about the case and gave him a call. Before that summer and fall were over he’d also told Hardball and Democracy Now his story about what he called the culture of abuse. He was the first interrogator who had worked in Iraq to describe torture and abuse by American troops, and in the wake of the interviews he started working on a book, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq, that will be published in June. Army press spokesman John Paul Boyce responded to the Hardball interview by saying that the army “has never given authority to any soldier throughout this war to abuse or torture detainees. . . . We encourage Mr. Lagouranis to provide the army any new information so that it may be investigated thoroughly.”
Lagouranis didn’t believe he had anything new to say to the army besides the abuse he’d reported in January 2004 in Abu Ghraib, in two CID interviews after he left Mosul that spring, three times to the marine chain of command at Kalsu in September and October, and again in an interview he’d instigated with CID after his return to Georgia in January 2005. After his appearance on Frontline was aired in October 2005, however, an investigator from the army’s CID came to Lagouranis’s apartment and asked why he hadn’t reported any of the abuse before going to the media. “The guy said to me, ‘We ran your name through the computer. We don’t have any reports from you.”
Asked by the Reader what the army had done to respond to Lagouranis’s complaints, Boyce, the army spokesman, responded via e-mail that “Mr. Lagouranis was interviewed by CID to follow up on his allegations, but offered little specific information for further action.” No one, Boyce said, had been charged with any offense.
Marine captain David Nevers, public affairs officer for the 24th MEU, responded to Lagouranis’s accusations of abuse committed at Kalsu by marines. “I can tell you that there was no evidence to substantiate the thrust of his claim, which was that persons we were detaining were being abused at the point of detention,” Nevers said last week. “Were our marines aggressive in pursuing and subduing known murderers, criminals, and terrorists? You bet. Did some of those characters get roughed up a bit during detention at the point of takedown? Yeah, inevitably. We were fighting a war and the enemy plays for keeps, and our guys in pursuing, in what we call hard hits, are going to have to be very aggressive in assuring their own safety and the safety of those that they are detaining. But were our guys as a matter of course abusing those we were detaining? Absolutely not. And to automatically equate a few cuts and bruises sustained during arrest and detention where our marines are encountering armed resistance is to demonstrate a poor appreciation, to put it charitably, for the environment in which our guys were operating.”
Nevers thought Lagouranis had filed only one complaint and did not know the circumstances or injuries alleged. Lagouranis says he filed three complaints–involving an old man and his family who were allegedly beaten in their home, a man who said he was hit with the back of an ax head during interrogation, and a chicken farmer who fled when the MEU arrived–a man not wanted for any offense yet allegedly beaten during the marines’ interrogation. Lagouranis says he saw more serious injuries at Kalsu that he didn’t report. “I don’t know why I filed some abuses and not others. I guess it had to do with how busy or tired I was and how much I liked the prisoner I was dealing with.”
The techniques Lagouranis used were authorized by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, in a memo dated September 14, 2003. The document’s opening section states that the Geneva Conventions are applicable and that “Coalition forces will continue to treat all persons under their control humanely.” Having said that, Sanchez goes on to authorize inhumane treatment–stress positions, the use of dogs, exposure to heat or cold, prolonged isolation, loud music, sleep deprivation (Sanchez called it “sleep management”), and the undefined “light control.”
According to Stephen Lewis, one of Lagouranis’s fellow interrogators in the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, all the techniques Lagouranis deployed with the exception of the use of dogs “were very common and directly overseen by officers as high as a full colonel.” Lewis served in Iraq at the same time Lagouranis did, but was deployed solely in Abu Ghraib and in a location he is not allowed to discuss because that information is classified. The techniques, Lewis said, “were considered legal and required approval each time requested. I never witnessed or heard of a rejection of a request.” Lewis says he didn’t see anyone use dogs because the colonels who supervised the two sites where he worked were squeamish about them.
Lewis says he was required to submit a detainee abuse report whenever a prisoner complained of mistreatment, no matter where it had taken place. He recalls patterns of torture emerging, with specific methods peculiar to specific locations–there was a Ramadi pattern, for instance, and another for Fallujah. He recalls that prisoners complained of having been sodomized by a broom or squeegee handle in one location, and although he’d report it he’d hear the same allegation several months later from another prisoner detained at the same location. “Not once did I hear of any arrests” as a result of an abuse report, he says, though it was clear to him that the detainees were not repeating a rehearsed story.
“It was obvious that certain abuse was happening all over the country,” he says. “Every day I saw things that to so many of us interrogators seemed so normal and part of a routine that nobody said anything. It takes a unique clarity to stand up and say what everyone thinks is so normal is actually abhorrent. I think I did well under the circumstances, but no one reported what they should have when they should have–including me.
“I saw barbaric traits begin to seep out of me and other good and respectable people–good Americans who never should have been put in that position to begin with. They have two choices–disobey direct orders or become monsters. It’s a lonely road when everyone else is taking the other one.”
Asked if he thinks the techniques Lagouranis used constituted torture, Lewis said, “I think it was a very blurry line over there. All of the techniques any of us used were expressly approved by high-ranking officers, so any interrogator had plausible deniability because we were repeatedly told we were in the right. Yet Tony stood up and said it was wrong what the highest echelons of the Pentagon at the time were saying was right. Which is much more than most of us can say.”
And yet for all the courage Lagouranis has shown in coming forward, taking on the army and the marines single-handedly, enduring denunciation from various partisans, and speaking at various human rights events, he still has to face himself. Here is a torturer who has studied the great works of Western civilization and floated around the country living a nonconformist’s life. He lived for six months in his current apartment with nothing more than a mattress, a folding chair, and a box on which to put his computer; the furniture he now has, donated by a friend, might be rejected by the Salvation Army. And he has tortured. The measure of that is his victims. Asked what she might expect to see in a man who’d been held in a shipping container, his vision obscured, bombarded with strobe lighting and loud music, deprived of sleep, exposed to hypothermia, and threatened by a large dog, Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi, senior consulting clinician for the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the man suffered severe physical and psychological damage for the rest of his life.
Asked how he explains himself, Lagouranis says, “It’s tough. I can say I was following orders, and that is partly true. I was wondering, ‘At what point do I put my foot down?’ and there were definitely times when I said I wasn’t going to cross this or that line.” Lagouranis refused, he says, to engage in sexual humiliation, electric shock, or mock execution (though he admits that he once failed to assure a blindfolded prisoner he was escorting past some soldiers at target practice that this was not a firing squad). He also says he never hit a prisoner, though he admits that hitting someone “might do less damage to him than hypothermia or stress positions or things like that. It just seemed like that was completely taboo. I didn’t really think that through–it seemed to me like that was where the line was legally and morally.
“But there are other answers, too. You are in a war zone and things get blurred. We wanted intelligence. It really became absolutely morally impossible for me to continue when I realized that most of the people we were dealing with were innocent. And that was tough. So it made it easier if I thought that I was actually dealing with a real-life bad guy. Another thing that made it easier was that I felt–and I think this is a flawed argument too–that it was all environmental things that were happening to this person. Like it was gravity that was making his knees hurt, it was the fact that it was cold outside that was making him uncomfortable, it wasn’t me, you know what I mean? As I said, those are flawed arguments, but it makes it easier to do it if you think of it that way.
“Then, also, you’re in an environment where everybody is telling you that this is OK, and it’s hard to be the only person saying, ‘This is wrong.’ And I really was, even as I was doing it, I was the only person saying, ‘We’ve got to put the brakes on. What’s going too far here?’
“You might think this is not a good defense either, but the things that I did weren’t really that horrible. I mean, I saw some really horrible torture. And I’m sure like every torturer would say this–‘Other people are doing worse things.’ I didn’t carry the things that I was doing as far as I could have. Like the guys that we were leaving out in the cold, I was always the one who went out and checked on them all the time. Most of the other people would just sit in the office and watch DVDs while these guys were out in the cold. I was bringing them in and warming them up. So I didn’t go as far as I might have.
“I don’t think people can imagine what it’s like. In Mosul we were wide open. There was [only] concertina wire separating us from the town and we were getting mortared all the time. You’d be laying in bed and mortars were going off all over the place. The infantry brings you somebody and they tell you that this is the guy who’s shooting mortars at you. Scaring him with a muzzled dog doesn’t seem like the worst thing in that situation. . . . I mean I was willing to try it. I didn’t know that it wasn’t going to work.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.