Civil Liberties

'We Were Torturing People For No Reason' -- A Soldier's Tale

Interrogator Tony Lagouranis says he discovered and indulged in his own evil at Abu Ghraib prison, and now fears that it will be his constant companion for the rest of his life.
This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

The Torturer's Toll

Tony Lagouranis is a 37-year-old bouncer at a bar in Chicago's Humboldt Park. He is also a former torturer. That was how he was described in an email promoting a panel discussion, "24: Torture Televised," hosted by the NYU School of Law's Center on Law and Security in New York on March 21. And he doesn't shy away from the description.

As a specialist in a military intelligence battalion, Lagouranis interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Al Asad Airfield, and other places in Iraq from January through December 2004. Coercive techniques, including the use of military dogs, waterboarding, and prolonged stress positions, were employed on the detainees, he says. Prisoners held at Al Asad Airfield, which is located approximately 110 miles northwest of Baghdad, were shackled and hung from an upright bed frame "welded to the wall" in a room in an airplane hanger, he told me in a phone interview after the NYU event. When he was having problems getting information from a detainee, he recalls, the other interrogators said, "Chain him up on the bed frame and then he'll talk to you." (Lagouranis says he didn't participate directly in hangings from the frames.)

The results of the hangings, shacklings, and prolonged stress positions -- sometimes for hours -- were devastating. "You take a healthy guy and you turn him into a cripple -- at least for a period of time," Lagouranis tells me. "I don't care what Alberto Gonzales says. That's torture."

Lagouranis was on the NYU panel -- along with Jane Mayer, a New Yorker staff writer; Stephen Holmes, an NYU School of Law professor and author of an upcoming book, The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror; Jill Savitt, director of public programs for Human Rights First; and Wesleyan University professor Richard Slotkin -- to talk about torture and its role in the Emmy-Award-winning 24.

The show's hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), is famously ruthless in his attempts to extract information about terrorist plots from suspects in "ticking timebomb" situations. The prevailing sentiment of the show, as Mayer wrote in her February 19 New Yorker article about 24, is, "Whatever it takes." Lagouranis met with the show's creative team in California in November, she wrote. He told them that the grisly plotlines of television shows like 24 had given soldiers ideas on how to torment prisoners (for example, forcing a prisoner to listen to the sounds of men being tortured in a nearby cell -- a method that was proposed, he said, but not carried out during his time in Iraq).

The violence on 24 is horrific and almost cartoon-like in its depiction. Yet the show does have a moral conscience. One of the themes, as lead writer Howard Gordon told Mayer, is that Jack Bauer suffers over the violence he is forced to inflict on men and women in the name of national security. "Jack is basically damned," Gordon told Mayer.

Jack Bauer is, of course, a fictional character. Lagouranis, meanwhile, has seen the suffering of people who have been interrogated in Iraq. Their pain is muted in comparison to the ordeal that 24 suspects have endured. The Iraqi prisoners were not electrocuted or attacked with knives, as Mayer wrote about the terrorism suspects in 24. And Lagouranis may not be, in Hollywood discourse, "damned." But he is in a state of mind that could be described as -- at the very least -- uneasy.

Lagouranis is one of the few individuals to have spoken publicly about his experiences as an interrogator who used or saw harsh techniques inflicted on prisoners in the war. His book, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey through Iraq, co-authored by Allen Mikaelian, will be published in June. But he is hardly the only one familiar with the stories. It is hard to know how many men and women have witnessed acts of detainee abuse or participated in the use of coercive interrogation methods that appear to violate international law during the Iraq war. At least nine individuals, including Lynndie R. England and her former boyfriend Charles A. Graner Jr., have been sentenced to prison for detainee-related offenses at Abu Ghraib. Others may someday face prosecution for alleged crimes and detainee abuse in the Iraq war.

Lagouranis reported the detainee abuses that he witnessed in Iraq and is not a suspect in detainee-related abuses. As he says, he followed military guidelines during interrogations. "The things I participated in were technically legal," he explains. Yet there have been repercussions. He suffered from panic attacks after his return to the United States and was placed under army psychiatric care. He received an honorable discharge from the army in July 2005.

Lagouranis studied ancient Greek at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and he learned Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. As he explained in his book and in conversations with me, he is familiar with classical and modern texts about warfare and the Middle East as well as with international law that protects the rights of prisoners of war.

He and other soldiers discussed the Geneva Conventions during military training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, in 2003, before being deployed to Iraq. But it became clear they were not always expected to abide by them, he says. Some of the soldiers and officers had been influenced by Mark Bowden's October 2003 Atlantic Monthly article, "The Dark Art of Interrogation," which describes techniques that, in the author's words, are "excruciating for the victim" yet "leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm."

"It seems to me Bowden was advocating what he calls 'torture lite,'" Lagouranis tells me. "That made an impression on a lot of people. The feeling was that what we had been taught about the Geneva Conventions was not going to be followed anymore. We would be following a new set of rules -- and that was what Bowden was talking about."

Things seemed different in Iraq. "I started realizing that most of the prisoners were innocent," Lagouranis says. "We were torturing people for no reason. I started getting really angry and really remorseful and by the time I got back I completely broke down."

Maybe that was a normal reaction, I tell him.

"That's what my shrink told me," he says. "I can just say that people don't fully realize that for a person to do that to another human being -- it definitely takes a toll."

Back during the NYU event, Lagouranis had sat behind a long table on a stage with his sleeves rolled up and his arms folded across his chest. Toward the end of the discussion, he leaned forward and told the audience that, ultimately, the abuse of prisoners could not be blamed on shows like 24. "I'm from New York City. I'm college-educated," he said. "But you put me in Iraq and told me to torture, and I did it and I regretted it later."

It is clear that he and others like him will be dealing with the fallout from the war, especially those aspects that have been hidden from public view, for a long time. "I didn't know I would discover and indulge in my own evil," he writes in his forthcoming book. "And now that it has surfaced, I fear that it will be my constant companion for the rest of my life."

This article is available on The American Prospect website. © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.
Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.