Former Interrogators Debate Harsh Tactics

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The finger pointing continues over the question of whether top U.S. government officials knew that harsh interrogation techniques were being used on enemy combatants during the Bush administration. Two men who are very familiar with harsh interrogation — Mike Ritz, a former interrogation instructor and Tony Lagouranis, a former army interrogator in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — discuss whether or not some of the interrogation methods employed constituted torture.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, they are Latino-Jewish hip-hop-heads who are not afraid to have a laugh and push some political buttons. They are the Hip Hop Hoodios and we'll talk with them in a moment. But first, we continue in a very different vein with another in our ongoing series about harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. Many people consider at least some of those techniques torture. And the Obama administration has said they must not be used again. But members of the Bush White House led by former Vice President Dick Cheney are insisting that whatever the Bush administration did was both lawful and justified to keep the country safe after 9/11.

Today, President Obama and former Vice President Cheney delivered back-to-back speeches about national security that will likely fuel the debate.

President BARACK OBAMA: I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence. I bear the responsibility for keeping this country safe. And I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.

Mr. DICK CHENEY (Former Vice President): In top-secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was, and remain, a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts had failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

MARTIN: On this program we've been having a series of conversations about this important issue. But we are mindful that while policymakers and journalists and, frankly, citizens have the luxury of debating this in hindsight, American service members have had to translate muddled interrogation policies into action on the ground. One of those service members was Tony Lagouranis.

He served as an Army interrogator in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. Although Tony was not involved in the infamous pictures from that site, he did use techniques such as military dogs, sleep deprivation, stress positions and on one occasion a mock execution. He detailed it all in his book "Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey through Iraq." Also with us is Mike Ritz. He's a former interrogation instructor for the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape program, also known as SERE.

The program provides military personnel with training in evading capture and surviving harsh interrogation methods imposed by enemies. And it is these kinds of methods that were apparently turned around and later used against American prisoners. So we decided to ask both of these men for their take on the torture debate. And as we have done in the past, I want to warn listeners that we may discuss some of these techniques in detail and part of this conversation may not be suitable for some of our listeners. So with that said I want to welcome both of you gentlemen to the program. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. TONY LAGOURANIS (Former Army Interrogator): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And Tony let me start with you. You have extensive interrogation experience. Do you think now that any of the techniques that you were trained in constitute torture?

Mr. LAGOURANIS: Well, I wasn't trained in those techniques that I would call torture. Those, that was part of the problem. In training we were told that we had to follow Geneva Conventions to the letter, which wouldn't involve any harsher course of techniques. Once we got into Iraq, we were told that Geneva Conventions didn't apply and we were given a new set of rules for which we didn't have training. And those rules were sort of open-ended. In fact, the document called "Interrogation Rules of Engagement" said that the interrogator needs the freedom to be creative in the interrogation booth, therefore these are only guidelines that we're giving you.

And among those guidelines were the use of military working dogs, sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, as we read it, or extreme heat; isolation. And I do believe those things constitute torture.

MARTIN: Where, where...

Mr. LAGOURANIS: Certainly they violate the law.

MARTIN: What about forced nudity? The forced nudity that many of the prisoners were subjected to, do you think that's torture?

Mr. LAGOURANIS: Well, torture is psychological, primarily. So it's not torture that causes physical scars. But I think that being subjected to that could have psychological consequences. However, I should say that that was - humiliation was discouraged in the interrogation rules of engagement.

MARTIN: And Mike what about you? As I understand it, you were training Americans to withstand these kinds of tactics, correct?

Mr. MIKE RITZ (Senior Interrogation Instructor, Team Delta): Right. I was attached to the SERE school in the U.S. Army. And then in 1997, I started my own private company that was a simulated version of SERE school in the Army, where I could use just about any technique that I had read about. And I tried most of them on willing participants to see what sort of results I would get. You might say it was kind of a stress laboratory of a sort. Id like to applaud Tony for being outspoken. Im aware of Tony. I have seen him in several interviews and what hes doing is not an easy thing to do. You know, I myself have come criticized by various members that would prefer us to be quiet.

MARTIN: And if you would talk to me, Mike, a bit more about what some of the techniques are that you used to try to train American service members to withstand these techniques. Did you use waterboarding?

Mr. RITZ: Yeah, I've used waterboarding. In U.S. Army SERE School, we don't waterboard in that conventional sense that you're reading about now from the Office of Legal Counsel and those memos. But as, you know, an owner of Team Delta I have tried waterboarding. I have used waterboarding on a number of occasions. In fact, I've waterboarded some journalists for the purposes of showing the public what waterboarding looks like and what happens to a subject that undergoes it.

The one thing that I do want to point out is that, you know, in all of the training and exercises I've been involved in and the methods that I have employed, they've always been on people that were willing participants. And so as a result the psychology is much different there. And, you know, it's an argument that has started where people have said, well, you know, if we can do this to our own soldiers in the SERE course, then, you know, why can't we do it to actual detainees or prisoners?

But I mean the psychological state of the individual that's undergoing these methods, there is such a sense of futility and such a sense - and fear of the unknown for a real prisoner, that we can't simulate that with willing participants. I mean, willing participants know the duration of the technique, they know that ultimately they're safe and in a controlled environment. So I do want to point out there is a major difference between, you know, doing these techniques in a training environment versus doing them in the real world with people that don't know what's going to happen. These techniques are really -and these enhanced interrogation techniques, which I'm going to call torture...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RITZ: ...these techniques really was a reverse engineering from the SERE course. It was people that thought that, well, you know, because we use these on participants in a training environment, then it would be okay to use this on real detainees and that it would reap benefit. So - but it's never anything as Tony mentioned that's taught to interrogators and certainly, quite the contrary. Interrogators are told to never lay your hand on a prisoner.

MARTIN: And can I just stop you, just to clarify. One of the things you're saying is that if a willing participant in a training exercise, one critical factor is he or she presumably can make it stop; if a person decides that they've had enough, presumably they can end it.

Mr. RITZ: That - that's true, I mean it is - it can be difficult. I mean, certainly in my - in my program on the private level, it was easy for a participant to stop. They just said they wanted to see the senior interrogator, anything of that such and we stopped and we talked to that person and a medic would check them out and so forth. In the SERE environment, I mean, there's a lot more pressure, there's a lot more at stake. I mean you're going through a course, you're being rated, you're being graded and - but ultimately yes, I mean, ultimately the person can stop.

In fact, when I started my own company, we checked with two forensic psychiatrists and we said, can we create any psychological trauma by the nature of the course that we are doing? And we were told by both that as long as the person ultimately has the control, as long as the person ultimately can say they want to stop, then it won't cause any trauma.

MARTIN: One of the points of contention in this debate, and I'd like to get an opinion from each of you, is whether they actually yield useful information. Our former Vice President Dick Cheney has been very insistent that the material obtained using these methods was important to American safety. And I wanted to ask each of you whether you think that that's true. Tony, do you think that that this - these techniques actually yield useful information?

Mr. LAGOURANIS: In my experience, they didn't yield any useful information. And even if it did yield useful information, you couldn't separate it from the information that wasn't useful. I mean, I always just give the example that you can torture somebody into confessing to any crime you want. I could probably torture you until you confessed to murdering JFK. But that doesn't mean you did it, and it's certainly not intelligence.

MARTIN: Is part of it though because you didn't know really with whom you were dealing? I mean, I understand I'm setting up a hypothetical, which may or may not be relevant. But is part of the issue, in your view, that these techniques were used indiscriminately against anybody or was it that they shouldn't - that they're just not useful at all?

Mr. LAGOURANIS: I would say both. Certainly most of the detainees that I interrogated and many of them that I tortured didn't have information to give me. And they hadn't committed any crime or action against the U.S. forces. But beyond that, I think that even when you're dealing with somebody who did have information, I think that torturing them is the worst possible way to go. You're not - the FBI does not use torture and they have a 90 percent success rate in their interrogation practices. And I saw nothing close to that when I was interrogating in Iraq using any techniques.

MARTIN: Mike, what's your take on this?

Mr. RITZ: I agree with Tony completely. And I'd like to point out, I mean, we -this isn't guesswork. We know this to be fact. If you look at the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was initially captured and cooperated with FBI interrogations, they were utilizing rapport-building techniques. They were giving him the incentive of promising that his wife and family could come to the United States.

And this guy, who was very guilty, was cooperating, was giving us actual intelligence information. And what happened was the CIA came in, asked could they use more enhanced interrogation techniques on the individual and through rendition took him to a foreign country, utilized those techniques.

At first, he clammed up completely. And then ultimately, he linked al-Qaida to Iraq and stated that Iraq had trained al-Qaida in weapons of mass destruction and such, which we now know to be completely false information. And some would speculate that certainly sparked the war.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking about harsh interrogation techniques, which many people consider torture, with Tony Lagouranis. He served as an Army interrogator in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. He was not implicated in the pictures and the scandal that was associated with that prison.

Also joining us is Mike Ritz. He's a former interrogation instructor for the military Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Program. And just to reiterate our warning, some of this conversation may not be appropriate for some listeners. So we just want you to know that.

Gentlemen, we've heard about the effect of these techniques on prisoners, but I wanted to ask about the effect of participating in this. Tony, I just wondered if you felt that there was some cost to you psychologically or emotionally in using these techniques.

Mr.� LAGOURANIS: Yes. When I came back, I was experiencing intense guilt. I'm still dealing with that. And I think that any sane person who is put in a situation that I was and ends up brutalizing a helpless person, whether -doesn't matter who they are, you're going to suffer psychological consequences from that. And with that, I'd like to bring up a friend of mine who trained with me as an interrogator and trained in Arabic with me.

She was sent to Iraq and asked to use these harsh techniques in the interrogation booth in Tal Afar. She refused twice, and she ultimately was taken off of her post, and she killed herself rather than use these techniques.

So we're asking our young servicemen and women to make a choice to torture people or destroy themselves in the process, and I don't really think that's how we want to treat our service people.

MARTIN: Tony, it's my understanding that under military law, one can refuse an order that one believes to be unlawful. In the real world, can you do that? Does that happen?

Mr.�LAGOURANIS: Yes. However, as I said, we were given interrogation rules of engagement issued by the Pentagon. So we believe that the orders issued were legal.

MARTIN: And Mike, can I ask you the same question? Even as an instructor, and I understand that you're saying that there's - that the conditions are just simply different, as one would assume that they were. But what do you think about that as an instructor? Do you feel that there's an effect on a person to participate in these kinds of techniques? And why might that be?

Mr.�RITZ: Well, I mean, there is an effect on individuals that subject others to any of this sort of cruel treatment. There are psychologists at SERE school, not only there to evaluate the people undergoing the training, but also to evaluate the staff and cadre that are there to make sure that they're not losing their senses, that they are maintaining their composure, that they are not getting into the process a bit too much.

I mean, we've known this for a long time what can happen. If you look at the Stanford Prison Experiment that Dr.�Phil Zimbardo did in - I believe it was 1969, where he took students randomly and made half of them prison guards and made the other half prisoners and didn't give them much rules other than that, and they made the school into a mock prison ward, you saw instantly, this two-week experiment got shut down in six days because those individuals that were playing the role of guards became very sadistic, to include sexual humiliation.

Just naturally, they became that way, once the other individuals playing prisoners started to get out of control and there started to be this us-versus-them mentality, and it got heated very quickly.

So, I mean, this is - we know that this is natural for human beings that are under particular circumstances. Good people can do bad things under the right circumstances, or I should say maybe the wrong circumstances.

MARTIN: And finally, Tony, we're down to just our last couple of minutes. I'm curious about your take on why this debate has been so insistent. There have been a number of service members, including yourself, who have spoken publicly about their experiences. There have been a number of government officials who said this just does not work, or if it does that the batting average, if you will - not to trivialize but to use that term - just isn't worth it. And I'm just wondering why you think that we're still debating it.

Mr.�LAGOURANIS: Well, it's interesting to note that it's - you would have a hard time finding a professional interrogator who would tell you that torture is effective or that wants to use torture. The military didn't request to use torture. The FBI doesn't want to use torture. It's really the civilians who are asking for it, like people like Dick Cheney, who led us into a war based on bad intelligence, as Mike said. And ultimately, I don't think that torture is about getting intelligence. I think it's about domination. I think it's about revenge. It's about fear.

MARTIN: Tony Lagouranis served as an Army interrogator in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, and I want to emphasize again that he was not implicated in any of the abuses that have been subsequently documented there. He detailed his experience in his book, "Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq." He joined us from Chicago.

We were also joined by Mike Ritz. He's a former interrogation instructor for SERE, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Program. He's also the founder of Team Delta, a private consulting company. And he joined us from the studios of WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Gentlemen, I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr.�LAGOURANIS: Thanks for having us on, Michel.

Mr.�RITZ: Thank you.

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