'We Were Torturing People For No Reason'

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The International Herald Tribune

'We Were Torturing People For No Reason'

by
Tara McKelvey

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 e-mail promoting a panel discussion, "24: Torture Televised," hosted by the Center on Law and Security of the New York University School of Law on March 21. 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 dogs, waterboarding and prolonged stress positions were employed on the detainees, he says. Prisoners held at Al Asad Airfield, about 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.

When he was having problems getting information from a detainee, he recalls, 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 told me. "I don't care what Alberto Gonzales says. That's torture."

Lagouranis was on the NYU panel to talk about torture and its role in the Emmy Award-winning television show "24."

The show's hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), is ruthless in his attempts to extract information about terrorist plots from suspects in "ticking timebomb" situations. The prevailing sentiment of the show, as Jane Mayer wrote in an article about "24" in the New Yorker 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.

Jack Bauer is, of course, a fictional character. Lagouranis, meanwhile, has seen the suffering of people who have been interrogated in Iraq. The Iraqi prisoners were not electrocuted or attacked with knives, like terrorism suspects in "24."

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 with Allen Mikaelian, will be published in June.)

Lagouranis is hardly the only one familiar with the stories. At least nine individuals 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 learned Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. As he explains in his book, and in our conversations, he is familiar with classical and modern texts about warfare 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 article in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Dark Art of Interrogation," which described 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 told 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."

Things seemed different in Iraq. "I started realizing that most of the prisoners were innocent," Lagouranis told me. "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."

At the NYU event, Lagouranis said, "I'm from New York City. I'm college-educated. But you put me in Iraq and told me to torture, and I did it and I regretted it later."

That is something Lagouranis and others like him will be dealing with 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."

Tara McKelvey is a senior editor at The American Prospect. This article was distributed by Agence Global.

Copyright © 2007 The International Herald Tribune

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