TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Forget the expression enhanced interrogation techniques. My guest Eric Fair considers what he did torture. He was an interrogator in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. He didn't practice any of the worst abuses. But he did use stress positions and sleep deprivation, and he deeply regrets it. He explains what he did and the emotional and mental consequences he's still living with in his new memoir "Consequence."
When Fair worked as an interrogator in Abu Ghraib in Fallujah, he was employed by a private company under contract to the military. He had previously served in the military and worked as a police officer in his hometown Bethlehem, Penn. After working as an interrogator, he returned to Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the NSA.
Fair survived the war, but he had a serious heart problem which nearly killed him. He was saved at the last minute by a heart transplant which we'll talk about later. We started our interview talking about when he first arrived at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. Eric Fair, welcome to FRESH AIR. What surprised you most when you got to Abu Ghraib just the prison itself, just as a place?
ERIC FAIR: I think it was difficult to be surprised because there were so few expectations about what we were getting into. None of us had been to war. There were a few - some of the older gentleman may have seen action in the first Gulf War but on a very limited basis. And we had certainly never done anything like staff of large-scale prison in the middle of a combat zone.
The first thing that may have seemed abnormal was that we were housed in old prison cells. And so Abu Ghraib is an enormous prison complex with quite a few buildings. And one of the buildings that had housed Iraqi prisoners during the days of Saddam Hussein had been emptied out. And we were led to a cell with an actual - bars on the door and that's where we lived. So there was a sense, I think, from the beginning that we were almost going to make it up as we go along.
GROSS: You know, on some kind of metaphoric level, it almost sounds like you were a prisoner in there, too.
FAIR: Well, we were all certainly behind the walls. And we were all on some level restricted in terms of movement and where we could go. I certainly wouldn't suggest that I had the same experience that an Iraqi prisoner of war did. Most - the vast majority of them were housed in outdoor camps in tents. There were a limited number on what we now know as the hard site which was one of the prison buildings that was used for high-value detainees.
But it was not similar to what I think what - and I can't say for sure because I wasn't there - but what interrogators went through at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Ghraib had its own sort of - well, its own atmosphere that I had never experienced anywhere else.
GROSS: Describe that atmosphere.
FAIR: There was always an impression for me with the prisoners of war that they were brought back to the rear - and outdoor facilities may have been built, their indoor facilities - but that the interrogators and the guards who were guarding them essentially lived outside of the war zone in large part to protect those personnel but to protect the prisoners as well.
Abu Ghraib was smack dab in the middle of the war zone literally about halfway between Fallujah and Baghdad. And they were small - I mean, there is a town of Abu Ghraib, and there were buildings around. And we did receive incoming mortar fire and sniper fire. It was an active war zone. The people that were being brought in were in many ways directly responsible for the mortar fire and the sniper fire that was coming in. So the idea of random sort of incoming rounds is a frightening thing.
Now, the vast majority of those rounds were ineffective. They were not - there was no real accurate targeting system. But, still, in the back of your mind as you walked to dinner or breakfast or to work or even to a chapel you never - you just - you never knew when it was coming. And it was disquieting.
GROSS: And the guys who were your prisoners - the guys who knew the guys on the outside may be who were firing at you.
FAIR: Sure. There was cheering inside the camp as one would expect when the mortar rounds came in. They sensed that as sort of a - it was their comrades supporting them on some level.
FAIR: Certainly, I think any prisoner would have done the same thing, so, sure, there was - it was intimidating, not only the fire coming in but then the sound of the prisoners cheering it.
GROSS: One of the first practical obstacles that you ran into is the translators you were working with. You knew Arabic, but you still worked with translators. And there's all kinds of different dialects in Iraq. But the translators were from other countries, so you had to deal with their heavily accented English and Arabic. And there were times where neither you nor the prisoner you were interrogating could understand the translator.
FAIR: Sure, yeah. And Arabic is an incredibly complicated language, like many languages. I deployed to Egypt in 1999 with the U.S. Army, and the Arabic that I had learned in the Army was Modern Standard Arabic. It was the kind of thing that you might hear in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. But when I arrived in Egypt, I literally could not understand what the Egyptians were saying to me. Now, they...
GROSS: This is before Iraq. When you were...
FAIR: This is before Iraq. And so it was an eye-opener to me about just how different the dialects could be in some ways entirely different languages. And, now, this was, of course, the case in Iraq. There was also an Iraqi dialect which quite frankly was not as complicated as the Egyptian dialect, but my Arabic had faded at that point.
It had been a few years since I'd been in the Army. It'd been a number of years since I had been to the Language Institute. And so at least to start, I needed the use of a translator to get a conversation going.
GROSS: What were you typically given about a prisoner before you began the interrogation? What did you know about them? And what kind of guidance were you given about what you were supposed to find out about?
FAIR: Sure. It varied a great deal. They were prisoners that certainly came in with large packets with a lot of background information about who'd they been during the Saddam regime, who their associates were. And there were others that came in with almost nothing. The common phrase that we became familiar with was detainee was suspected of anti-coalition activities, and that was literally all they would come in with.
Now, there were what were known as PIRs in any sort of intelligence unit which stands for priority intelligence requirement. So a commander will say to his forces, these are the specific things I want to know. I want to know information on this street or on this valley or on this type of weapon being used. And the main PIR in 2004 was the location of chemical weapons.
We were still very much under the impression that Saddam had chemical weapons in Iraq. And so every interrogation - there were certainly other types of information you might want to gain depending on who that detainee or prisoner was. The location of chemical weapons was the priority.
GROSS: You write (reading) at Abu Ghraib, I have put my hands on detainees, shoved them into walls and turned a blind eye when others did the same.
You also used what you - what had been described then as stress positions Tell us a little bit about the techniques that you used that you now most regret.
FAIR: So there's the whole debate about the difference between enhanced interrogation and torture and where is the division. For me, the stress positions that we used were in many ways based on the kind of stress positions that we had gone through in basic training, whether it was being in a push-up position for a certain amount of time or holding your arms out to your side with books in them until you essentially achieved muscle failure.
The idea was to exhaust someone. These were the techniques that I was most familiar with and that I used. And there was never - again, there was never a point at which I thought I knew I had crossed the line. I think I knew that we were being aggressive, and there was a certain confusion around why we were doing this. But as a prior enlisted soldier, the expectation was that you, you know, completed your job and you completed your mission. And these were necessary tools in that mission.
I would not suggest that I used them frequently, but I think that even by sort of dipping my toes into that puddle, I essentially went sort of swimming in that pool of depravity. It was torture. It was - you know, the idea that there's interrogation and then there's enhanced interrogation, there's torture - there is no middle ground. There is interrogation and there's torture. Torture is an enhanced interrogation.
GROSS: There was something that was described by the people doing the interrogations as the Palestinian chair. Would you describe what that chair was and how it got its name?
FAIR: So the Palestinian chair was introduced to that when I moved out to Fallujah in the spring of 2004. The Abu Ghraib was becoming too large. There were too many detainees. And so the idea was that we would send the small teams out to some of the forward bases and interrogate detainees earlier in the detention process.
So when I arrived in Fallujah, there was a small chair about 2 feet tall made of plywood and two-by-fours. And it had plastic zip ties used to secure someone's hands on the bottom. And the Palestinian chair was intended to put someone in a crouched position from which they could not recover, and it forced all their weight onto their thighs and their calves. And they stayed there for as long as an interrogator decided they were going to stay.
It was based on - there were - one of the enhanced interrogation techniques was confined spaces. It was the idea that you could put someone in a box or in a closet. The Palestinian chair was designed as essentially a confined space. But instead of them in a box, you simply forced them to be in a confined position.
GROSS: And when somebody's legs gave out, what would happen?
FAIR: Well, torture would happen. It was - there was simply no - there was no other place for them to go. And so they simply rested on extraordinarily - or what appeared to be extraordinarily painful legs.
A close friend of mine and I did lock ourselves into the Palestinian chair at one point to get a sense for what it was. We both lasted less than about a minute. Now, certainly I think physically we could've lasted longer, but there's that terrible fear associated with not being able to move and recognizing that you're headed towards a terrible pain to which there is simply no way to adjust.
GROSS: And maybe long-term muscle damage.
FAIR: Certainly, yes.
GROSS: So can you just explain why the Palestinian chair was called the Palestinian chair?
FAIR: I'm not sure that I can give a thorough explanation. It had Palestinian chair written on it. There were suggestions from some of the Army soldiers that used it that they had been trained by Israelis who presumably used it against Palestinians. I don't know if any of that's true. I don't know that it necessarily mattered. It wasn't as if we suspected there were Palestinians in Iraq. That - it was simply what someone had written on the chair long before I had gotten there.
GROSS: So did you ever use that on anyone?
FAIR: I did not, no. I did witness its use near the end of my stay in Fallujah. I had walked past the door of an interrogation room which was open, and I witnessed one of the prisoners in the Palestinian chair. And this is the point - and it's a point I write about in the book - where I recognize that I had gone to a place that I wasn't coming back from, that there was no point - there was no way to suggest that that kind of treatment of another human being wasn't abusive and that it wasn't torture.
GROSS: And the general who you observed in the, quote, "Palestinian chair"...
FAIR: He was the mayor of Fallujah.
GROSS: Yeah, and there was a puddle of urine at his feet. And you had earlier interrogated him.
FAIR: I had spoken to him earlier, yes. He had been arrested by Special Forces groups. He'd been involved in an attack in Fallujah on a police station. So this was the point at which Sunni forces were beginning to fight amongst each other, and really the groundwork for what we're now calling ISIS was beginning to be formed. And there were Islamic groups that were fighting for power.
And so they'd gone in and murdered a number of Iraqi policemen, stolen their uniforms and their equipment to use in future attacks. And the suspicion was that the mayor of Fallujah at the time was involved in facilitating this attack. And I had spoken to him on my own. At this point, I was growing weary, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a part of this. And so my interview was direct and open and conversational. And he denied everything. He was then passed on to another interrogator who used the Palestinian chair on him. And I did come to find later that he was involved in the attack, and that he had given access to the police station and helped plan the operation.
GROSS: So he really was involved or do you think he just said he was involved to get out of that painful torture position?
FAIR: Well, ultimately, I suspect there's no way to know for sure, but there was enough corroborating evidence. So once he sort of confessed to being a part of it, there was enough corroborating evidence amongst other people and just the simple facts of what had happened and how they had gotten in that he had been a part of it.
Now, in some ways it certainly made sense. Fallujah was an incredibly complicated place. He was likely a low-ranking member on the Ba'ath party and trying to secure his future in what was becoming an extraordinarily violent and difficult place to exist. And so he had an incredibly difficult choice to make whether or not he supported the Iraqi police, many of whom are receiving their payments and orders from Baghdad, or whether he supported what were becoming more local forces which was, again, what I think is now more ISIS, and that was the choice he made.
GROSS: So would you say on some level, well, this form of torture was successful, it got him to confess?
FAIR: No. I refuse to suggest that torture is successful on any level. And I'm not sure that it matters, and it shouldn't matter to anyone in this country. And I'm not sure why we've gotten to this point that we start to talk about the effectiveness of torture as if that makes any difference whatsoever.
Torture is wrong. And Americans - all Americans - should know better. I mean, that's what makes us attractive. What makes us attractive is the way we do things. It's the example that we set. What makes us attractive is not how tough we are or how good we are at extracting information. And anyone who thinks that way, I think, fails to understand what this country is about. So I've left that discussion about whether or not torture is effective or not behind. It simply doesn't matter.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Fair, and he's written a memoir called "Consequence" about his time in Iraq as an interrogator working with a private contractor in Abu Ghraib prison, and then he returned to Iraq working with the NSA as an intelligence analyst. We'll take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Fair. His new memoir called "Consequence" is a memoir about being an interrogator in Abu Ghraib prison, working for a private contractor and then returning to Iraq to work with the NSA as an intelligence analyst.
And, you know, one of the things - one of his major points in the book is that he really regrets some of the techniques that he used as an interrogator and thinks that there is no support for anything resembling torture when it comes to interrogation.
So you were briefly in what was called the hard site which was the site for the most high-value detainees where the interrogation techniques were more severe than the techniques that you were using. You didn't do any interrogations there yourself, but you just observed that site for a while. Tell us what you saw.
FAIR: So the hard site was, as you had mentioned, where the higher-value detainees were kept. And I had been asked to come in and observe at least a part of an interrogation. Again, I became attractive in some sense because of my Arabic and because of my security clearances which I had brought from other places. And so there were other - there were very few interrogators who spoke Arabic, and the vast majority were struggling with the same sort of issues I was. It was hard to know exactly what a translator was saying and what they might have been missing.
And so the idea was that I would come in and view part of this and maybe to at least get a sense if the translator was effective or not. And so as we walked into the hard site, it was a - most people have seen the photos - it's a two-tiered, open bay prison. And I think it's difficult to describe quickly, but I would suggest that nudity was sort of the theme of the entire prison. The number of Iraqis that were naked was what was shocking, and it was cold. Iraq certainly gets hot in the summer - everyone knows that - but it also gets very cold in the winter. This was December.
Sleep deprivation and forced standing were sort of the - were the most common thing that most prisoners were suffering. So they were handcuffed to the cell walls in a position in which they were standing. Their hands were placed down between their legs and then their hands were handcuffed back behind them which simply - similar - very similar to the Palestinian chair - denies you the opportunity to sit down or to rest.
And so you could combine what were essentially two enhanced techniques - sleep deprivation and forced standing. It was a shock to have a system - and, again, I think the natural and very fair question is why didn't I say something at that point or why didn't I quit as contractor? I could've quit at any point.
But, again, the desire that had been sort of drilled into me to stay committed to things in the United States Army. I mean, these were my comrades, whether they were contractors or whether they were soldiers. I knew the uniforms. I knew the ranks. I knew that - or at least at that point, I still supported the invasion and the war effort. And so I felt that I had an obligation to be a part of it. And there was a recognition that certainly war was going to be ugly, and I think I did my best to justify what was going on.
GROSS: When you saw the prisoners were really being tortured by anybody's standard, did it make you think twice about some of the techniques that you were using?
FAIR: It did. I think - here, I want to be careful. What I don't want to do is I don't want to get into a discussion that suggests that there was so much worse going on that I did or that - the book is a project about my own role and about the only mistakes that I made. And I think each interrogator and each individual who was in Iraq needs to come to terms with their own behavior.
My behavior towards Iraqi detainees did not meet the standard that I had simply been raised on. It was not the way that I should've behaved. There are long discussions about why those things happened and how those things happened and how difficult it was to sort of break from - to break from those expectations of being a soldier.
But none of that matters; I made horrible mistakes. And my treatment - and things like stress positions and then in Fallujah later participating in a sleep deprivation were abhorrent, and I have a responsibility to confess those things openly.
GROSS: How did that sleep deprivation work?
FAIR: Sleep deprivation can work in a number of different ways. The sleep deprivation that I was assigned to - it was another interrogator's detainee. We were on shift work. I was on night shift at that point. And so he had interrogated him during the day, and then the idea was to practice sleep deprivation on him during the evening.
So he had asked me to go into his cell - he was in his own sort of individual cell at this point - and wake him up every hour, strip his clothes down, strip him naked, make him stand for a few minutes and then let him go back to sleep. I walked in, I stripped him down and that is the point at which for me the involvement in any kind of enhanced technique or any kind of torture ended.
And I can't say exactly why. Maybe it was the smell, maybe it was the nudity, but there was something clear - it was a clear violation of another human being's will. And there's a lot of talk about sleep deprivation, the idea that those of us who had gone through basic training or college have all been sleep deprived. And I take great offense in that statement, the idea that those two things are the same.
You can practice sleep deprivation on someone in just a matter of hours. So if it comes to be the evening and you can put them in a room with no windows and it's dark and you let them sleep for 15 or 20 minutes and then wake them up, they have no idea how long they've been asleep. And you can let them go back to sleep for another 15. They still have no idea. In the course of an hour or two, you can make them think they've lived three or four days. And they lose all sense of time, and they lose all sense of hope. And it, again - without ever laying a hand on someone - it's the very definition of torture.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Fair, author of the new memoir "Consequence." After a short break, we'll talk about how he tried to reconcile his work as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib with his Christian beliefs. We'll talk about what it was like for him when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and we'll hear about his life-saving heart transplant. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Eric Fair. His new memoir, "Consequence," is about working as an interrogator in Abu Ghraib prison and in Fallujah, working for a private company under a contract to the military. He later returned to Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the NSA. He'd served in the military before the war in Iraq and had worked as a police officer in his hometown. Bethlehem, Penn. When he was an interrogator in Iraq, he used stress positions and sleep deprivation to try to get more information from the people he was questioning. He now considers those techniques torture and deeply regrets having used them.
You are Christian, and that's a very important part of your life. You applied for seminary before you went to Iraq and then studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary after returning from Iraq.
But you write - back in the time when you were an interrogator - you write (reading) I cannot ask God to accompany me into the interrogation booths. In scripture, God often works in prisons, but he's never on the side of the jailer. He's always on the side of the prisoner.
How did you try to reconcile being an interrogator, knowing that you were coming to feel that the techniques you were using were just wrong, that they were morally wrong? How did you try to reconcile that with your Christian beliefs?
FAIR: Yeah, so the attempt to try to reconcile some of those things started long before Abu Ghraib. I had - as a boy, I had sensed - I was Presbyterian, grew up Presbyterian, a very devout Presbyterian. And part of the Presbyterian denomination is the sense of a calling, a sense that God calls you to very specific vocation. And I had interpreted that early on as law enforcement.
And so I set out after college to find any way possible into law enforcement. And I eventually did. Now, I lost that job due to a heart condition, and I never accepted that. And I think from that point forward, I started to make poor decisions. And rather than - again, speaking as a Presbyterian - rather than maybe seek out a new calling or to be quiet and try to hear more wisdom or a new calling, I set out to sort of reclaim my calling on my own. And this was the point at which contractors were beginning to hire for positions in Iraq.
Now, I knew that I couldn't - I could not re-enlist because of the heart condition, and there were certain agencies that I couldn't be hired by because of the health issue. But I knew that as a contractor I would not be required to go through a health examination. And so that, for me, was the easiest way back into something that felt like law enforcement, which was interrogation.
Now, the steps - just the ability to justify these things just kept going, and I just kept making poor choices after that. The idea that, as a devout Presbyterian, I was going to be an interrogator in a war zone should never have sit well. And I allowed it to. So when I arrived at Abu Ghraib, prayer - morning prayer - had always been a part of my life, and it had certainly - like many believers - had fallen. But I remember a specific example on which I sat down before my first interrogation, walking over to the interrogation facility and attempting to go through my prayer. Presbyterians often pray through the Lord's Prayer through stages. And when I got to the section on requests - the idea that God would help me in something or that God would assist me or favor me in some way - that concept of the idea that God appearing in prisons and never ever being on the side of the jailer was a shock to my system. And so at that point, I simply made the next justification and abandoned prayer and stopped seeking out God.
GROSS: When did God start to reenter your life?
FAIR: Well, again, as a Presbyterian - you know, Presbyterians suggest that God is incapable of leaving, that we leave God. I don't know if that's true or not. But certainly as my conscience began to kind of boil after Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, there was a desperate hope and a desperate need on my part to somehow find my way back and an idea that if I could do that, that maybe somehow I could erase - erase those stains. Now, that's something I've recognized in retrospect that I'm not able to do. And that's not the kind of thing God does for us. But there was, I think, a desperate pursuit, which is why I ended up at seminary. I'd certainly considered seminary before the Army, even thought about it during college. So it had always been in the back of my mind. But after the two trips to Iraq, seminary was in many ways kind of a last kind of hope for me to reclaim what I'd lost.
GROSS: But you left that, too?
FAIR: I abandoned seminary after a year, yeah. I dropped out. I knew within the first - really, probably first few weeks if not the first month or two that I wasn't going to - I was not going to be ordained a Presbyterian minister. I'd written an opinion piece for The Washington Post in 2007 about some of the things I'd done in Iraq. And so I was out in the public about some of these issues. And so while I was studying at Princeton and at the seminary and trying to prepare a sermon or trying to read Karl Barth, I was also then visiting libraries or appearing on a radio station and talking about issues about interrogation. Now, at that point I hadn't publicly suggested that I'd tortured anyone. I hadn't made that leap yet. But again, my conscience was so stained, and a Presbyterian or a Christian would say my soul was so stained at that point, that I was smart enough to recognize that I was not going to be a Presbyterian minister.
GROSS: Let's go back in time again. So when the Abu Ghraib story broke in the American press and the photos were published and Seymour Hersh had a long piece about Abu Ghraib in The New York Times, there was a piece on "60 Minutes." So the American public is getting very aware of this information that's being reported. You were still working at Abu Ghraib as an interrogator, right?
FAIR: I believe I was in Fallujah at the time.
GROSS: So what was the impact of the press coverage on you?
GROSS: Were you reading what was being published? How aware were you of it?
FAIR: Well, in the dining facilities we had, you know, the Armed Forces Network. So we were seeing all the same television that Americans were seeing, and we certainly had access to newspapers. So we were aware. And I think, you know, again, each interrogator certainly reacted differently. I know that I and some of my close friends - we were shocked by how shocked the American people were. Now, we were not implementing enhanced interrogation techniques and torture behind closed doors. We weren't doing this and then going back to our bunks at night and suggesting, I hope no one ever finds out about this, or don't tell anyone. This was part of what we viewed as an authorized program. Now, there are all sorts of different opinions about exactly what was authorized and who was authorizing it. That's for someone else to decide. But as interrogators, none of us thought that we were doing anything wrong.
Well, there might've been a sense that we were doing something morally wrong, but legally wrong, no. We thought we were - again, certainly some of those photos were not things that we were doing and had not been aware that they were going on, and we were sort of surprised that it was happening. But, you know, the image of someone nude or someone being intimidated was a daily occurrence for us.
There were certainly - you know, again, I've been careful about making the comparison and saying that I didn't do things that other people did. I don't want to do that. This story's about me and my own failures. But that being said, there were images in there that we were surprised by. The mock executions were something I had never done and I do feel confident that most of my colleagues would never have participated in. I had not been aware that people were using dogs on detainees. But I also was not aware that that was necessarily something that was not supposed to be done. I can't say that if someone had brought a dog into an interrogation booth what my reaction would have been. So again, there was just - at that period - and I know it's very difficult, we're talking 12 years ago, to remember the context of what was going on. This is still in some ways in the wake of 9/11. Still, people like me were very much behind the war effort. You know, the country nationally hadn't quite shifted in terms of war opposition. And so there was a certain confusion that - why this was causing so much stress.
GROSS: Like when you saw the photo of naked Iraqi prisoners in a human pyramid - the most, like, humiliating kind of photo - did you think, like, the people who were responsible for making them get in that position were, you know, quote, "bad apples"? Or did you think, this is the kind of thing we're officially doing now in the prison?
FAIR: No I never - I never believed in the idea of bad apples. Now, certainly, again, the naked pyramid is not something I ever did and not something I witnessed. And I think I can say that I was somewhat confused by and trying to get a sense of what was going on. But the idea of having walked through the hard site and seen naked men chained to a cell with their hands between their legs - granted, they're not in contact with another human being, but, I mean, how far do you have to go before there are different levels of humiliation? This is not about what the military policeman did at Abu Ghraib. I think that's in some ways a separate story. I don't think that we were doing anything less in terms of the amount of torture that we were prosecuting on Iraqi prisoners.
GROSS: Just different.
FAIR: I'm not sure how torture gets different. And I want to be careful about different levels of torture because this is what allows, I think, someone like Donald Trump to suggest that water-boarding is not torture and so much worse is not torture. We can change the legal definition. You could bring six lawyers in here, and you could get six different opinions about what is torture. I think that the minute you violate another human being's will - as Americans, we have an obligation to call that torture..
GROSS: My guest is Eric Fair, and he's written a new memoir called "Consequence" about his work as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, working for a private military contractor and then returning to Iraq to work for the NSA as an intelligence analyst. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Fair. His new memoir, "Consequence," is about his experiences and the consequences of those experiences serving as an interrogator in Iraq and Abu Ghraib prison, working for a private military contractor and then returning to Iraq, working as an intelligence analyst with the NSA.
It seems from your memoir that there was a lot of confusion for you about what the relationship was between you as a contractor and the military commander who you reported to. Because our wars now are being fought with a mix of American military and defense contractors, it would be helpful to know more about how that relationship works between those two. It sounds like there were times when it was very confusing. Can you talk about that confusion a little bit?
FAIR: Sure, so as a soldier you learned your chain of command from day one. And you had to be able to recite it to whoever asked. And the very top of your chain of command is always a civilian. It is always the president of the United States. And it was drilled into your head from day one that civilians, the American people, run the military. I remember specific - when I was in basic training in Missouri, we were out raking leaves one afternoon. And a group of civilians drove by and asked us for directions. And I remember the drill sergeant becoming furious. And he ran over to us, and he yanked us away from the civilians. And then from a distance, we watched as he stood at parade rest and talked to the civilians in a very polite voice. And he called them sir and ma'am. And it was a shock for us to see our drill sergeant being respectful to civilians. And so the idea was that you always defer to civilian leadership.
There were contractors around when I was in the Army in the late '90s. They were there for electronics or specific mechanical issues. And we viewed them as essentially above us. Now, that relationship became extraordinarily complicated in a place like Iraq. There were simply too many contractors. No one knew who was in charge. So certainly, the military had that old feeling of - with civilians in the room, the civilians are sort of ones that you defer to. But we were all prior military. The vast majority of us were prior enlisted. So in some ways, we still viewed ourselves as subject to military officers and the military leadership. And so I don't know that there was anyone, at least that I was associated with, who had any real understanding of how that relationship was supposed to work.
GROSS: Is there an example of a time when that made what to do very confusing for you?
FAIR: No, I don't think we were - I don't think I was confused by it because I think what I assumed was that I had an obligation to follow the orders of officers, right? Now, we might not have - they didn't give us orders the same way they would have if we were wearing a uniform in rank. But if an officer was up in front of a group giving a speech or if an officer was even in the room, I, and I think most of my colleagues, deferred to that officer.
GROSS: You returned home from working with a military contractor, with a private company, in Iraq. But you didn't last at home long. You went back. And your experience was so complicated in Iraq. You were so torn apart by your experiences as an interrogator, by having done things that you knew were wrong. Why did you want to return?
FAIR: So again, this speaks to just how strong that bond is in the military and that - and the refusal to quit. There were so many of us who hung on as long as we could in Iraq because we simply didn't want to be the first to quit. We didn't want to be that kind of person. And so a number of us recognized that even though we no longer wanted to be associated with this specific contractor and this specific type of contract in Iraq, interrogation, we still wanted to come back. So we could justify quitting by then suggesting that we were going to come back in another position. And so even though I did quit and came home, I came home - and my - I had told my wife this. And she knew it too, that I came home with the - specifically, to find another position and return back overseas and essentially, in my mind, complete what I had started.
GROSS: So what was the capacity you returned in?
FAIR: Well, there were a number of different options. But again, as a linguist and someone with a security clearance, the National Security Agency was, in some ways, a perfect fit for me. And so I went through their hiring process and was hired as an intelligence analyst. And at that point, they had - it was understood that you would spend about two years with the organization before you deployed, essentially as a trainee. But there were so few employees who were interested or willing to go to Iraq, and certainly very few with my kind of experience, that I was able to deploy relatively quickly. So within about a year, I was back in Iraq.
GROSS: Doing what?
FAIR: Well, I served, for the National Security, as an intelligence analyst, which is a sort of broad term for a variety of different subjects and issues.
GROSS: So the part of your book that's about serving as a security analyst with the NSA had to be shown to the Defense Department?
FAIR: Well, it had to be shown to the National Security Agency, which is part of the Defense Department. When you work for the National Security Agency, you sign a lifetime agreement for what's called pre-publication review. So anything that you're going to publish, you have an obligation to send to them so they can review.
GROSS: So that part of your book, which is at the very end of your book - or close to the end of your book - is highly redacted. And as an example of those redactions, there's a couple of pages that I'd like you to read. There's very little actually that's not redacted...
GROSS: ...In those couple of pages. So I'd like you to read what you wrote and then tell us how long the redactions are and then pick it up again.
FAIR: The next day, I am pulled aside by the CSG supervisor. A paragraph is redacted. I get sick in the portable toilet and tell God to wait outside. The next full two pages are redacted. There is to be no redemption for me in Iraq. The next paragraph is redacted. I no longer sleep well. I no longer enjoy myself. A package from Karen arrives. It has the two mouthwash bottles filled with liquor. I send an email and ask for more. An entire page is redacted. I am not disgusted by my actions. The next sentence is redacted. I am disgusted by how good it feels to wield power - redacted. I am terrified of where else that feeling might take me. In Iraq, I have not just taken the wrong path. I have walked in the wrong direction entirely.
GROSS: OK, and that's Eric Fair reading redacted portions of his memoir "Consequence." I have to say as a reader of your book, I'm reading this, and I'm really wondering, like, what has he done that is redacted? Because it's obviously sickening you and weighing on your conscience.
FAIR: My intention in writing this portion about the NSA and my time there, was never to reveal classified information. I have my own - everyone has their own agenda. I have my own agenda, which is essentially my confession in talking about torture. My agenda is not, in any way, to reveal something about the National Security Agency. In fact, I think in terms of intelligence agencies, the National Security Agency is an extraordinarily professional agency and is an important part of that process. That being said, the NSA, for their own reasons, took serious issue with what I wrote. And I'm obviously limited - and I signed the agreement. And I have no intention of revealing this information. And - but I think it's safe to say that I found it curious that in over entire pages of redactions, in which clearly other sentences could have been let go, that they allowed certain sentences to come through that spoke about sort of my lack of redemption and having God wait outside a portable toilet. So in some ways, I'm confused by the redactions. But I'm equally confused by some of the things that they allowed to come through.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Fair, author of the new memoir "Consequence." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Eric Fair. His new memoir, "Consequence," is in part about being an interrogator in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison working for a private contractor and then returning to Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the NSA.
When you eventually returned from your second period serving in Iraq, you were sick. You got very sick. You had had a heart condition before going to Iraq the first time. It's why you couldn't go back in the military, and you had to work as a private contractor. It's why you could no longer be a police officer. But you decided to ignore that and go to Iraq. Your doctors thought you were kind of crazy. But, you know, after your second period in Iraq, after a while you were dying basically...
GROSS: You came very close to dying because of your heart condition. Would you just explain what the heart condition is?
FAIR: Sure, I was a police officer up in Bethlehem. And I was actually applying to the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington. And I was going to be a special agent. And they required a very thorough physical. I was very healthy, and I was in good shape. And so I went for the physical, and a minor heart murmur was discovered. And they said that was fine. That it may just be because I ran so much - had to get it checked out and I did. And one thing led to another.
It was - and it became what - it's a cardiomyopathy. So it was an enlarged heart. I had a bicuspid valve. And your heart has something called an ejection fraction, which is essentially how much blood you're pumping into your system. Mine was down in the 20s. It should have been up in the 60s. Now at this point, I was still completely healthy. I was not symptomatic. I had no idea that any of this was true. So I was devastated by the diagnosis. But there were medicines that I'd been prescribed. And they made me very sick, and they made me weak. And they made me tired.
And so I went from being - what I felt was perfectly healthy in the prime of my life and then taking medicines that seemed to make me sick. And I simply refused to accept that any of these things had happened. Now, whether that caught up to me because I wasn't taking the medicines or whether it was simply the natural progression of my cardiomyopathy, my condition continued to decline. And I eventually, after my second deployment, became symptomatic.
And as it progressed, the numbers from future tests became worse and worse. And that was when they started to suggest that heart transplant would be necessary. And so the summer of 2013, not far from this studio, I was at the University of Pennsylvania in their hospital. I was - I had been there for a few weeks, and I reached my end. And without transplant, I almost certainly would've died that summer.
GROSS: Do you feel more vulnerable after the transplant?
FAIR: Well, again, there's no denying that as a transplant patient, I will not see retirement age. The best case scenarios for transplant patients are 20, 25 years. Those are miraculous cases. Now, there's always the chance for another transplant and certainly if my cardiologists are listening, I would be upset right now because the idea is that just - you don't think about those things. But there's a reality. I'm on limited time at this point. And so, yes, absolutely, there's a recognition and maybe this does play a part in why I'm so eager to write this book and talk about these things that, you know, a clock is ticking for me.
GROSS: We think a lot about the consequences for America of having tortured people and the consequences for the people who were tortured. You write a lot about the consequences for you who used techniques in interrogations that are relatively mild compared to say waterboarding, but that you still can't justify in anyway and that still haunt you.
Would you talk a little bit about the consequences for the person who uses torture?
FAIR: So there's the idea that torture in some way violates someone physically, that you hurt them in a physical way. But torture is really forcing someone's will to work against them. And it's the idea that you create two people inside of one and that there's one person that works against the other. And this is the - in many ways the goal of any interrogator is to create a different voice inside someone that it fights against. So there might be one voice that suggests that they shouldn't be cooperating with Americans, and you want another voice that suggests that they should.
Torture is physically inserting yourself into that person and becoming that other will. And it's a way in which you violate a person that you can never repair. And there are plenty of interrogators out there who have done these things and said that it was worth it because they saved American lives. And I sympathize with that opinion.
I recognize the idea that something good in their mind comes out of saving American lives. But I'm convinced that if most of us who participated in these acts are being truly honest, we recognize that we violated another person's will and that we changed them in a way that they cannot be fixed. This is not about basic training. This is not about college hazing. This is not about you staying awake because you're studying for your medical exams. And if you think that, then you need to think more critically. We hurt people and not just physically. We destroy them emotionally, and we have - I think it's a just - at the very least - a just punishment that we suffer some of those consequences, too.
GROSS: Well, Eric Fair, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
FAIR: Thank you. Thanks for the time.
GROSS: Eric Fair's new memoir is called "Consequence." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the story of a 52-year-old tech reporter who was laid off and then went to work for a tech start-up where most of the people were in their 20s and 30s. My guest will be Dan Lyons, author of the new memoir "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble." Lyons has also written for the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.