Interrogator Questions Stressful Techniques

Former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis talks with Steve Inskeep about the tactics he used on Iraqi detainees, such as isolating them for weeks at a time. Lagouranis says that, overall, very little intelligence was gained through stressful interrogation tactics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's conversations about American interrogations drew many comments. Donald McCullough(ph) writes from Fort Meyers, Florida: Your stories have been well-presented, objective, and balanced, and therein lies the problem. You're having a dispassionate, logical, discussion of a topic that deserves intense, moral outrage.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Katherine Evans(ph), of Maplewood, New Jersey, writes, In spite of losing someone in the Trade Center, waiting many fearful hours before retrieving my own husband, and enduring 13 anxious months as my brother served in Iraq, I remain unable to believe that torture is the correct response.

INSKEEP: We end this week's discussions by meeting one former interrogator. Tony Lagaranus(ph) says he joined the army to learn Arabic. By 2004, he was questioning prisoners in Iraq. Until May of that year, the rules let him deny prisoners sleep, manipulate their diets, and threaten them with dogs.

Mr. TONY LAGARANUS (Former United States Army Interrogator in Iraq): We'd bring in the dog into the interrogation booth. The prisoner would have a hood on his, over his head, or maybe blacked out goggles. And when I wanted the dog to lunge at the prisoner and bark, I would cue the dog handler and the dog handler would set the dog at the prisoner.

INSKEEP: You had dogs brought in just for this purpose?

Mr. LAGARANUS: That's right. Yeah.

INSKEEP: And the dog would be lunging at the prisoner, barking loudly in his ear.

Mr. LAGARANUS: Right. You know, the dog was muzzled and it was controlled by a handler, but of course the detainee didn't know that. So they were, they were obviously scared.

INSKEEP: What's a stress position?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Well, it can be just standing or kneeling or we could put them with their knees bent at right angles with their back against the wall. And you could leave them there for long periods of time to cause them discomfort and pain.

INSKEEP: What's isolation mean, in this case, in this context?

Mr. LAGARANUS: It could be, like, completely deep isolation. At Abu Ghraib, when I first got there, we had prisoners who wouldn't see anyone for months. They wouldn't see the sun. They wouldn't be allowed to talk to anybody but an interrogator for months. We weren't able to use isolation so severely at these outer detention facilities, because we normally would only have a detainee for two weeks. But we would sometimes keep them isolated for two weeks.

INSKEEP: Did you like this work?

Mr. LAGARANUS: No, I really didn't. I didn't like, you know, the abusive aspects of it. And it was also very a frustrating job because we got intelligence so rarely.

INSKEEP: Is there one particular interrogation you were involved in that sticks in your mind?

Mr. LAGARANUS: At one point we got two brothers in, in Mosul. And we had evidence that they were clearly involved in an insurgency, which was very, very rare. So...

INSKEEP: It was rare that you knew for sure that you were interrogating somebody who was really an insurgent, you're saying.

Mr. LAGARANUS: Right, because we rarely got any evidence with them. The information that we did get with the prisoners was often really sketchy. So we often really didn't know anything about the people that we had. But with these two guys, we had what we thought was really good evidence of their involvement in the insurgency.

So the chief warrant officer in charge there were really determined to go really hard on these guys for a period of maybe three weeks to a month.

INSKEEP: Three weeks to a month they were isolated, there are dogs barking in their face, they're out in the cold, their meal times are changing, they're standing in stressful positions, on and on.

Mr. LAGARANUS: Exactly. Right. And it really had a physical toll on these guys. And we ended up not getting any more information then what we already knew from these guys in the end.

INSKEEP: Did you ever try to build up any kind of rapport with these men?

Mr. LAGARANUS: That really wasn't my role in that particular interrogation. We had a staff sergeant who was playing the good cop, so to speak. And he had some success with that. But he didn't really get very far either.

INSKEEP: This must have been frustrating for your superiors. They believed that they had high value suspects here, and you weren't getting much out of them. What did you hear from your superiors about that?

Mr. LAGARANUS: You know, it was always trying to add another interrogation technique. Add another harsh tactic in order to get these guys to break. I mean, they really thought that we just weren't going hard enough on them, and so they wanted us to keep it up.

INSKEEP: So they said, try what?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Well, you know, kept compounding things. Like you know, today we're going to bring in the dogs. Today we're going to use, you know, not just stress positions but we're actually going to make them do physical exercise. We're going to make them, you know, crawl across the compound on their knees in the gravel. You know, just always ramping it up.

INSKEEP: You made them crawl across the compound on their knees in the gravel?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: How'd that go?

Mr. LAGARANUS: You know, these, like I said, these took a real physical toll on these guys. At one point one of them was not able to walk.

INSKEEP: And then he got a little better, and...

Mr. LAGARANUS: He, yeah, he got better, but, I mean, you know, they lost weight. They were showing some mental signs of, you know, becoming imbalanced. I don't know, they weren't doing too well by the end of this.

INSKEEP: Did anybody ever ask you to go beyond the kinds of - well, let's call it abuse, if you don't mind, the kind of abuse that you have described to prisoners?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Yeah. People were trying to get creative with the interrogation tactics. And so we'd always go back to the interrogation rules of engagement to see, you know, what was legal, what wasn't legal. And we'd have to work it out according to that document. So sometimes people did bring up things that wouldn't really correspond.

INSKEEP: Like?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Well, like, they wanted to set up, like, a mock torture chamber, and have a prisoner witness us torturing, like, you know, seriously torturing someone who would actually had just been a translator that worked with us. And they - or they would set up like a mock execution scenario or something like that. But those things we determined we couldn't do.

INSKEEP: You said the goal was to disorient the prisoners, but that you yourself ended up somewhat disoriented.

Mr. LAGARANUS: Sure. Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, in a way we were sort of isolated too. You know. We were isolated from our friends and our family, and civilian life, and everything. And so you're, you know, your moral compass starts to shift. Because if everyone around you, you know, believes that the Iraqi detainees you have are insurgents and they deserve whatever treatment we could come up with for them, then, you know, your moral compass starts to get skewed.

INSKEEP: Did you ever say to your superiors, look, what we're doing here is wrong?

Mr. LAGARANUS: No, I never would have, like, called into question the morality of it. But like I said, I was always going to the legal document that we had, that, the interrogation rules of engagement, to determine what was allowed and not allowed. And if we felt it wasn't allowed, we could tell our superiors that we weren't going to perform that.

INSKEEP: Can you remember a technique that was right on the borderline, might have been in, might have been out?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Well, you know, using hypothermia, using the cold weather, that was definitely borderline. That was not specifically mentioned in that document.

INSKEEP: Where'd that idea come from?

Mr. LAGARANUS: Well, even before I went to Iraq, my unit was telling me about techniques that they had been using in Afghanistan. One of them was, you know, using the cold weather. It's sort of a no-brainer. If it's cold outside, you know, and you want to cause a prisoner pain, you leave him out in the cold.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. Army interrogator, Tony Lagaranus.

The rest of this week's conversations on interrogations are at npr.org.

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