The Tortured Lives of Interrogators
Monday, June 4, 2007
CHICAGO -- The American interrogator was afraid. Of what and why, he couldn't say. He was riding the L train in Chicago, and his throat was closing.
In Iraq, when Tony Lagouranis interrogated suspects, fear was his friend, his weapon. He saw it seep, dark and shameful, through the crotch of a man's pants as a dog closed in, barking. He smelled it in prisoners' sweat, a smoky odor, like a pot of lentils burning. He had touched fear, too, felt it in their fingers, their chilled skin trembling.
But on this evening, Lagouranis was back in Illinois, taking the train to a bar. His girlfriend thought he was a hero. His best friend hung out with him, watching reruns of "Hawaii Five-O." And yet he felt afraid.
"I tortured people," said Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. "You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that."
Being an interrogator, Lagouranis discovered, can be torture. At first, he was eager to try coercive techniques. In training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructors stressed the Geneva Conventions, he recalled, while classmates privately admired Israeli and British methods. "The British were tough," Lagouranis said. "They seemed like real interrogators."
But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies' values.
The border between coercion and torture is often in dispute, and the U.S. government is debating it now. The Bush administration is nearing completion of a new executive order setting secret rules for CIA interrogation that may ban waterboarding, a practice that simulates drowning. Last September, President Bush endorsed an "alternative set of procedures," which he described as "tough," for questioning high-level detainees. And in Iraq last month, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, warned troops that the military does not sanction "torture or other expedient methods to obtain information."
The world of the interrogator is largely closed. But three interrogators allowed a rare peek into their lives -- an American rookie who served with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion and two veteran interrogators from Britain and Israel. The veterans, whose wartime experiences stretch back decades, are more practiced at finding moral balance. They use denial, humor, indignation. Even so, these older men grapple with their own fears -- and with a clash of values.
That clash, said Darius Rejali, a political scientist who has studied torture and democracy, can torment interrogators: "Nothing is more toxic than guilt, which is typical with democratic interrogators. Nazis, on the other hand, don't have these problems."
For Lagouranis, problems include "a creeping anxiety" on the train, he said. The 45-minute ride to Chicago's O'Hare airport "kills me." He feels as if he can't get out "until they let me out." Lagouranis's voice was boyish, but his face was gray. The evening deepened his 5 o'clock shadow and the puffy smudges under his eyes.
Not long ago in Iraq, he felt "absolute power," he said, over men kept in cages. Lagouranis had forced a grandfather to kneel all night in the cold and bombarded others in metal shipping containers with the tape of the self-help parody "Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy, and Sexual Satisfaction," by comedians Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. ("They hated it," Lagouranis recalled. "Like, 'Please! Just stop that voice!' ")
Now Lagouranis's power had dissolved into a weakness so fearful it dampened his upper lip. Sometimes, on the train, he has to get up and pace. But he can't escape.