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Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Torturer’s Tale

Tony Lagouranis never expected to become a torturer. He didn't even really want to be a soldier. But at 30, he was bored and broke. He had a facility with languages, fancied learning Arabic, and figured the US army would teach him for free and help him clear his student debts. When he started his training, the Twin Towers were still intact and no one expected the US to go to war in Iraq.

Even when Lagouranis chose to specialise as an interrogator, his army instructors implied that the Iraqis he questioned would be friendly and co-operative. "The last experience we had had with interrogation in the military was in the first Gulf war, when most of the prisoners were completely willing. They said: ask them a question and they'll tell you what you wanted to know."

But by the time he arrived in Iraq, the army knew better. Vast numbers of suspects were being rounded up, and they weren't talking. His superiors at the detention facility where he worked in Mosul gave him a list of authorised interrogation tactics - some might say, torture tactics.

‘It said explicitly that the interrogator needed the freedom to be creative... So basically there were no limits’

"It listed things like the use of dogs, dietary manipulation, using sleep deprivation, stress positions and 'environmental manipulation'," said Lagouranis. "We took that to mean that we could induce hypothermia, we could keep them in a hot shipping container, in the sun, for days at a time, we can use loud music and strobe lights and things like that. And it was also an open-ended document. It said explicitly that the interrogator needed the freedom to be creative. It said these are only suggestions of what you can do. So basically there were no limits."

Lagouranis saw people crippled through prolonged use of the stress positions he forced them to adopt, and driven to the verge of insanity through weeks of sleep deprivation and psychological disorientation. But maybe it was worth it if it produced valuable intelligence in the fight against the insurgency? No, he says. As a method of getting intelligence it was useless. And besides, the aim of interrogations shifted subtly. "A lot of what we ended up doing was trying to gather confessions, not intelligence. I think that the commanders wanted to show that they were doing a good job and were picking up guilty people. But in fact we were just rounding up whoever was on the street. They just wanted us to force people to confess so that they could brief their commanders and say that they had captured all the terrorists."

It was fine to douse the prisoner with icy water and put him in front of an air-conditioner, so long as the paperwork was in order

While training back in the US, Lagouranis had become friends with another linguist, Stephen Lewis. Lewis was sent to a top secret interrogation facility in Baghdad. He too was given a list of acceptable interrogation techniques but with the added refinement of a bureaucratic infrastructure. Before each interrogation he had to sign off a checklist of what he intended to do to the suspect. It was fine to douse the prisoner with icy water and put him in front of an air-conditioner, so long as the paperwork was in order.

After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004 Lewis and fellow interrogators worried that they might become the fall guys if their methods became public knowledge. They raised their concerns with superiors. Within hours, a crack team of army lawyers descended on the base, to give a PowerPoint presentation arguing that everything being done was compatible with international law. And, said the colonel in charge of the base, the interrogators had nothing to fear. "I remember him standing up and saying I give you my word that there is no way that the Red Cross would ever get inside the doors of this unit." How reassured was Lewis by this? "Not reassured at all. Why would he be worried about it? Why not let the Red Cross in?"

There are many academic studies showing that it doesn't take much for an ordinary person to become a torturer. But with Lagouranis and Lewis, something more remarkable happened. Independently, and working in different bases, they decided to stop torturing. Lagouranis, by now suffering from stress, managed to get an honourable discharge on the grounds that he suffered from an "adjustment disorder". Lewis applied to become a conscientious objector, was turned down, and had to serve out his remaining army term.

Today they share a flat together in a run-down district of Chicago. Lagouranis works as a night club bouncer; Lewis as a tennis coach. I think of them as two of the most morally admirable people I've met: proof, indeed, that although anyone can become a torturer, nobody has to.

Jolyon Jenkins presents 'The Torturer's Tale', Radio 4, 8pm, October 27