Inside the Wire: An Interview With Erik Saar

A former military linguist at Guantanamo describes a dysfunctional facility where prisoner abuse was all but inevitable.

| Tue May 24, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

In 1998, Erik Saar, a marketing major fresh out of college, signed up to become a military linguist. Four years later, having been trained in Arabic and intelligence work, he volunteered to work as a translator at the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where, over a period of six months, he translated for guards and interrogators. Proud to be working, as he saw it, to defend his country from terrorism, Saar quickly became alarmed and disgusted at the incompetent running of Guantanamo and the inhumane treatment of the detainees there, an evolution he traces in his recent book, Inside the Wire, co-written with Viveca Novak.

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Despite the Pentagon's initial insistence that Guantanamo holds the "worst of the worst," it's become common knowledge that most of the detainees held there are innocent of terrorist activities and of limited intelligence value--not least because those suspects deemed to possess critical intelligence have by and large been sent to other countries or bases for interrogation. Even so, thanks to an ineffective vetting system, in many cases it's not entirely clear, even to those working at Guantanamo, who the prisoners in the camp are and how they came to land there.

In Saar's telling, the combination of inept management, insufficient training, purposely loose interrogation guidelines, a refusal by the US government to abide by the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, and political pressure to wring intelligence, any intelligence, out of the detainees, made abuses inevitable. Saar spoke with Mother Jones about his experience working at Guantanamo and why he thinks the camp is an affront to American values and is undermining the goals of the war on terror.

Mother Jones: What kind of reaction have you received from your book, both from the general public and from those that you worked with at Guantanamo?

Erik Saar: I have talked to quite a few people who were on the island and I haven't ever come across anyone who liked everything that they saw there. Most everyone I have talked to thinks there are serious problems there. Not everyone agrees with how critical I've been. Essentially, I feel as though the camp as a whole represents a moral and strategic failure in the war on terrorism. In the long run, it could be doing more harm than good, and possibly producing more terrorists..

MJ: What positions did you hold in Guantanamo?

ES: The first job I held was with a group we called JDOG (Joint Detainee Operations Group). I was on a linguist team attached to JDOG and we supported translation for the detainees on a day to day basis. When they talked with guards, medical personnel, mental health team, or the chaplain, they would have us translate for them. That team did not have access to intelligence, and didn't work in interrogations at the time. I ended up leaving that team after about two and a half months, and working as a linguist on the JIG (Joint Intelligence Group). This meant that I was to translate in interrogations. I also served in a different role that I can't describe in detail. I would just say it was a supervisory role in an intelligence team.

MJ: You write that before you were sent to Guantanamo, "Human rights activists were denouncing the camp as inhumane. Most in the intelligence community, including me, saw things differently." How did you see it?

ES: I agreed with what most of what my colleagues in the military, and even some of the civilian political leadership, were saying—which was that Guantanamo was necessary to protect our country. I genuinely felt like this was something that those above my pay grade had determined as necessary to protect us and win the war on terrorism. I wanted to have a part in participating in that war and that was why I volunteered to go there. I was told these were the worst of the worst. To me, that meant people who had either helped plan 9/11 or who were planning future attacks against the United States. By the time I left, I came to see the camp in a very different light.

MJ: What is your view of the camp now?

ES: It's not humane and not effective. We have people there and we don't know what their affiliations with terrorism are. We ourselves cannot verify that they were enemy combatants picked up on the battlefield, as General Miller has repeatedly said to the media. A number of them were turned over to us by foreign governments, and the Northern Alliance, who were paid a bounty for them. There wasn't this extensive vetting process, as the Pentagon would lead you to believe. What extensive vetting process allows an 88-year-old to end up at Guantanamo Bay? And we are operating outside of the scope of the Geneva Conventions. Some of the things I saw were not only what I would consider unethical, but ineffective. We're not getting enough of a benefit for the price we're paying in terms of our reputation in the world. I don't know how, as country, we can say we're going to promote democracy and human dignity and justice throughout the Arab and Muslim world and at the same time defy some of those very same principles at Guantanamo Bay.

MJ: Do you think if you were getting more concrete intelligence from these people and they were the worst of the worst that you could justify the conditions at Guantanamo?

ES: Even if we were getting outstanding intelligence that was saving lives, I would have to say the system, as it is set up, is still unacceptable. I can't accept that, had we given them POW status, followed the Geneva Conventions, and set up some system of justice where they would have an opportunity to defend themselves, had we more readily vetted the people who should not have been there, the same intelligence would not have still been obtained. I'm not willing to concede that this was necessary.

MJ: You write about significant tensions that existed between the MI (military intelligence) translators, the MP (military police), and the guards. Can you talk a bit about that?

ES: The guards had a terrible job. They were sitting in 90-plus degree heat. They were told by their leadership that they should feel privileged to be there because they were guarding the scum of the earth responsible for 9/11. They genuinely believed that. Also, many of the guards thought that the conditions for the detainees were too good. Many of them were Reservists who held civilian positions in American prisons and they felt American prisoners were treated worse on some occasions than the detainees were. There was an enormous amount of friction between the MP and MI. I think part of it was because the guards viewed any attempt to treat a detainee with any sort of civility as being sympathetic to the detainees. The intelligence group is trying to get information out of these people that sometimes does involve treating them kindly and with civility. More specifically, they didn't like that we shared this common language with the detainee. The detainees saw linguists as their key to the outside world. They generally treated us better than they would many other people. I think they tried to use us because they knew that we were very important to them.

MJ: What could have improved this situation?

ES: The guards themselves could have had more extensive training. People could have been more real with them as to what the mission really was. They were misled. I think there was a conscious effort by the leadership to dehumanize the people who were being held in captivity. Maybe I'm a little naïve about how the Army works, but I personally don't think that that was necessary. We should have been told: "Yes, we’re trying to gather intelligence from these individuals which we're hoping might save American lives, but you should also be aware that none of these people have ever been found guilty of anything. Some of them will be sent to their home countries because we've picked them up by mistake, so treat them with respect."

MJ: Do you think there were people who had this information regarding where the detainees were coming from?

ES: On the intelligence side, everybody knew the situation. I feel like I was used at Guantanamo. My government had said one thing about what Guantanamo Bay was, but now, because I'm saying it's something different, I'm somehow unpatriotic. Those of us in the intelligence group knew that that the camp didn't have the worst of the worst. I don't know that the guards, the MP leadership, knew that per se. I would tend to think they didn't know because they were just focused on their job of running a prison. But certainly, General Miller knew. Certainly those officers within the intelligence group knew, and certainly the people who read the reports at the Pentagon knew.

MJ: When was the first time you started to have doubts about whether all these detainees were bad guys?

ES: I write about one story of talking to a detainee, before I was on the intelligence team. He was claiming to have been a Saudi and have gone to Afghanistan for innocent reasons and then turned over by the Northern Alliance. That planted the seed of doubt in my mind because he seemed believable to me, though I also knew that I wasn't in a position to be able to know the truth of that. But I started thinking, what if this guy is telling me the truth? That was in my second month there. After I moved over to the JIG and had access to intelligence information, I started to ask myself if it was acceptable to have people there who shouldn't have been there.

MJ: What most struck you about Guantanamo when you first arrived?

ES: What most startled me was the number of detainees who claimed to the linguists that they weren't supposed to be there. They're in this environment that is worse than some animals at a zoo. On one hand, I tried to tell myself that this was necessary, to toughen up a little bit, and not allow myself to be manipulated. But on the other hand, there was this doubt setting in—what if any of these stories were true? What if these people really have been wrongly apprehended? What if this guy really doesn't have any value to us, what's the purpose of doing this?

MJ: Was it a well-run facility?

ES: It was a horribly run facility. There were so many grey areas as to what was right and what was wrong. The MPs and guards didn't even know whether they were allowed to handle the Koran when they were inspecting it, or if they were supposed to call a Muslim linguist to come and do that. Similarly, a number of the interrogators didn't know exactly where the lines were supposed to be drawn in the interrogation booth. There was an enormous amount of latitude purposely given to the military interrogators. I think the leadership knew that some of the situations that took place were nearly inevitable, but they wanted to foster an environment where interrogators could be creative and try new things.

MJ: What convinced you that higher-ups wanted to create this environment where interrogators could be creative?

ES: One was this meeting that where it was explained to us in a PowerPoint presentation that the Geneva Conventions don't apply—which we already knew. They told us, "Just so you're aware, these individuals are not POWs, they're detainees or enemy combatants and it's because the Taliban is not a recognized government, and they didn't follow the law of land warfare." But, it was left unclear as to what that meant on a day to day basis. Another instance was an interrogation that I sat in on. The interrogator was trying to sexually arouse the detainee and humiliate him—she took off her top and was rubbing her chest on his back and wiped red ink on his face, saying it was menstrual blood. I had no reason to think that this interrogator was doing anything outside of the scope of what she believed was permissible. I knew other linguists that worked at interrogations where these same sexual techniques were employed. People have asked me, "Why didn't you go and say anything." That's why; because, I didn't think I would have been telling her commander anything that he didn't already know. I also know that there was a miniskirt that used to hang on the back of one of the interrogator's office doors. It happened also to be the office of her supervisor. And this office happened to be across the hall from a Colonel who was the commander of the JIG. It wasn't something that was hidden.

MJ: You write that when you first arrive at Guantanamo, the calls to prayer and the books some of the prisoners had access to seemed to you to indulge religious fanaticism. Did this perception change?

ES: After being there for a few months, I felt as though the call to prayer was something that was essential—it was more consistent with who we are as a country to say we're going to allow them to practice their faith. Speaking as someone whose faith is very important to me, I think that it is in keeping with American principles and values.

MJ: Do you think there was a general disrespect of Islam at Guantanamo?

ES: No. I can't say that in general. There were pockets of Guantanamo Bay that I would say disrespected the religion. I think that even if someone convinced me that some of those techniques were effective, I still couldn't justify trying to separate someone from their religious faith or manipulate them in that way, because it's bound to come back.

MJ: Explain the difference between an "Other Government Agency" [OGA, meaning CIA, FBI, etc.] and Department of Defense interrogation?

ES: Typically, the OGA that I worked with tried to build a rapport with the detainee. There was a lot of small talk involved and an effort to understand his culture so that they would have information to exploit. Then, they could check the information with other people and come back and talk to them again. Whereas my experience with the military interrogations was that they were trying to intimidate or scare a detainee into complying, whether it was through a stress position, or a cold room, or sleep deprivation. The message was, "Comply with us, or this is what your life is going to be like."

MJ: Which do you think was more successful?

ES: In my experience, the civilian agencies were much more successful. The FBI for example, was very critical of some of the techniques they saw the Army using. I knew that they were debating with the Army as to what was and was not appropriate. They felt that some of the things the Army was doing were burning bridges for them to get intelligence down the road. Many of these guys had been working in counter-terrorism for years before they got there. I felt they had more expertise, and wondered why we weren't taking what they said and considering it more seriously. I think it was because of typical turf war type stuff—each agency not wanting another agency or organization to tell them what to do.

MJ: In the case of the menstrual blood episode, you write that the interrogator "wanted to find a way to break him from his reliance on God, his source of strength." This was her intent when she touched the detainee with what he thought was blood, and then threatened to turn off the water in his cell so that he couldn't wash before he prayed. From your experience, has the attempt to break the detainees from their reliance on their faith resulted in any valuable information or relationships?

ES: I don't know of that working in any case or anyone telling me that that worked in any case. I assume there were people who thought it would work. I don't know that for a fact, but I can't think of why else it would have been something that they continued using.

MJ: Was that something you were trained to believe would work?

ES: No, I had never heard of anything like this before I got to Guantanamo Bay.

MJ: That's what's so perplexing—it's a technique that you describe as being fairly widespread and continues to be used, and yet hasn't produced intelligence and isn't part of intelligence training.

ES: I don't have a good answer for you. I wish I did.

MJ: How should interrogators and others concerned with preventing future terrorist attacks approach those who are Islamic?

ES: I think religion, no matter what religion it is, needs to be respected in the intelligence-gathering process. I think that's something that transcends the necessity to defend ourselves because not respecting it is counterproductive in the long run. When we, as a nation, are willing to use religion against a detainee, that's a reflection of who we are. I don't think this can seen as an isolated situation of us simply defending ourselves. It says something about the values we uphold as a country. It's hypocritical to claim to promote human dignity and justice, and respect for a religion in our foreign policy, but at the same time not adhere to those principles at Guantanamo Bay. I think the ramifications could be eventually having more individuals hate the United States and possibly produce more terrorists in the long run.

MJ: You write that the number of suicide attempts was much higher than reported by the Pentagon. How often did suicide attempts occur?

ES: When I was there it happened on a regular basis. I would say it was weekly. The detainees felt that their situation was hopeless. Many of them thought that they were eventually going to be executed. Those who were hardened, who we did start to see some intelligence from, were more likely to remain true to their cause and not attempt to kill themselves. They believed that this was an inevitable outcome of their decision to fight jihad. But the Pentagon thought it was just something the detainees were doing to get attention. They labeled some of those suicide attempts "self-injurious manipulative behavior."

MJ: In the book, you observe that people from different ranks spent time together informally and that many normal military rules didn't seem to apply in Guantanamo. Do you think this kind of informality permeated the whole mission at Guantanamo?

ES: Yes. I think it would have been better if it had been a strict, disciplined military environment where things like fraternization were not allowed to take place. That discipline shapes other aspects of the camp. The message is: "This is what you do. This is what you do not do. If you violate any of these rules, there will be ramifications." If that environment existed on other fronts, I think it would have been a much better place and the mission would have been easier to accomplish. I think the undisciplined environment had a direct implication on what was and wasn't allowed in the interrogation booth with people feeling as though they could be creative, and guards feeling as though the command wasn't tightly monitoring what they were doing.

MJ: You mention in the book that some of those stationed at Guantanamo didn't know when they would be able leave. How did being short-staffed affect the environment at Guantanamo?

ES: It definitely affected morale. It was difficult because, while many of us didn't know when we were going to leave, some of our friends were going off to Iraq. I think the military uses the fact that soldiers are not supposed to complain, and the mentality that "this is just the way it is and you're supposed to accept this" as a cover to be able to be disorganized. It's something that would never fly in the civilian world. The linguist team, and even some of the other interrogators, were told at one point that unless they had a replacement, they weren't going to let us go home.

MJ: You say that the informal atmosphere led to some of the more questionable interrogation techniques. Do you think that this atmosphere was purposely propagated by higher-ups, or was it just confusion and disorganization?

ES: I think the interrogation rules were not crystal clear and that this was intentional. If anything came out afterwards, they could point the finger at the interrogator and say this person was clearly operating outside of what was allowed at the camp. I think the environment was created by the leadership and they were responsible for what took place in the interrogation booth. I don't think tactics were used without them knowing about it. I do think it was intentional so that people would be creative.

MJ: When you and others received orders about choreographing interrogations for visiting officials, was there any suggestion among those participating that this was wrong?

ES: I think many of us just accepted that that was the way it was. They would replay what had been an earlier interrogation. It wasn't as though we got an actor, but we replayed an old interrogation with someone we knew would be cooperative. For me it was frustrating because I felt it undermined what we did in intelligence, which is to provide accurate information to policy makers. To be honest, most of the visitors who were coming to the island knew what techniques were approved. They knew we were interrogating people in the middle of the night. They knew there were people that were subject to sleep deprivation. They knew that certain stress positions were allowed. These were leaders. They could have easily said, "I want to go to an interrogation at midnight tonight, and I don't want the interrogator to know that it's being observed by a General or a member of Congressional staff." I have a hard time believing that any of those people who came to visit left and said, "Wow. I got a great picture of what really goes on at Guantanamo Bay." They're incredibly naïve if they thought that.

MJ: Why didn't anyone speak to General Miller, the commander of the camp, about their concerns?

ES: I would say that junior ranking soldiers don't ever think they can talk to a general that way. Nobody really thought to express their concerns to him because that's just not done in the Army. I've been asked a number of times why I didn't say things about what I didn't like. I think it shows a lot of people don’t understand the way things work in the military. Take Lynndie England. She was an E-3—a very, very junior ranking soldier. Yes, technically you're taught you only follow lawful orders. That's what we're all taught. But you're not taught extensively—and especially for someone who is not very sophisticated—you don't know what the hell a lawful order is. Am I saying, for her situation, that she should not have known as a soldier that what she was doing was wrong? No, I'm not saying that. She should have known what she was doing was wrong. But at the same time, it's drilled into her head the she follows orders. Your reaction as a soldier when you doubt something is not initially to say, "Wow, I need to say something to someone." In your training, it's never encouraged that the minute you see something you don't like to go and tell your superior officer. No way. If anything, you're encouraged to keep your head down, not ask questions, and go do your job.

MJ: What do you think of that mentality? Is it something that you think should be revisited down the line?

ES: I don't necessarily think it should be revisited because, from a military standpoint, it's necessary. You can't have low-ranking people questioning everything that happens from their leaders. It just would never work. They need to take orders and keep their head down and do their job. But that requires placing an enormous amount of trust in your leadership. That's why I am saying that some of these things going on in Guantanamo are the fault of the leadership. They need to accept responsibility for that because that's the way the military requires it to be.

MJ: Did you feel that politics seemed to drive the Guantanamo situation in general?

ES: I think there was a lot of political pressure that resulted in the intelligence team feeling as though they needed to take drastic measures to try to find that intelligence because the military leadership was being told by the civilian leadership that it was there and it was just a matter of finding it.

MJ: These interrogation tactics of sleep deprivation, the use of dogs, and stripping the prisoners naked—from your experience do these tactics seem fairly systematic? Or is this just a case of people without adequate training losing it?

ES: The original decision to allow techniques most people would think fall outside of the scope of the Geneva Conventions clearly came from the top. There are memos saying that this is allowed. The administration will argue that that was all that was allowed, and nothing else, and that people who went further were abusing those policies. But I think making that initial decision created an environment where abuses were more likely to take place. In that way, the leadership is responsible for it.

MJ: What is your opinion of the military investigations into prisoner abuses thus far?

ES: I think the Church report referred to Guantanamo Bay is an example of how to gather intelligence. That scares me as an American that someone would actually say that. I know that not all of my colleagues agree with some of the conclusions that I have drawn in saying that the camp is a disaster. But I have never met or talked to anyone who has said we were doing outstanding stuff there and that it should be used as a model for future intelligence-gathering operations. There were mistakes that were made and I don't know why there needs to be this effort to make it seem as though the camp was something that it was not. It's not justifiable, and it's not effective.

MJ: Do you think that the reports are holding the right people accountable?

ES: Definitely not. For them to be saying that low-ranking individuals simply went off and did their own thing and are solely responsible is wrong. From the perspective of a former soldier, leaders are responsible for what happens in their command. And they're responsible to ensure that their soldiers are effectively trained. In the case of Abu Ghraib, the fact that a leader got a letter of reprimand and the junior-ranking soldier, who was following orders, goes to jail, blows my mind. When you're a leader, you're responsible for the actions of your subordinates. Bottom line. We're talking about leaders who have prepared their entire career for what they are now experiencing: a war-time mission. Essentially, when they're not on a mission, they're training for that mission. This is someone who should be at the top of their game because this is what is going to make or break their career. And now they're saying they didn't really realize that this is what was going on in their command, and they weren't really responsible for it because these were just people who went off and did their own thing? It just contradicts everything you're ever taught in the Army about being a responsible leader.

MJ: What do you think the Army's approach is to the Guantanamo situation?

ES: I think they knew that by creating ambiguous policies, leaders would have a certain amount of cover. It's very easy for them to say that any abuses that come out aren't what the policy intended. So now they're going to throw the book at the low-ranking soldier. They always have an out. The easiest way for the military to handle true problems, whether they're at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or anywhere else in the future in the military, is to blame the lowest-ranking person. They will always be able to come up with a reason as to why that person has done something that's wrong because the policies are created to give cover to the highest-ranking leaders. I think that contradicts everything you're taught in the Army. It has made me lose a lot of faith in my military leadership.

MJ: Why did you write the book?

ES: A lot of people have called me unpatriotic. People have said that I'm just bashing our country. That's not the case at all. I wrote the book because I love my country. I wanted to give a firsthand account of what Guantanamo Bay was like for me. Maybe people have had different experiences. But, I wanted to tell how my experience contrasts with what the public perception is of Guantanamo Bay because I think we're making an enormous mistake in the war on terrorism. I think what we're doing there is not only morally inconsistent with who we are as a country, but it's also a strategic failure. If we look at how our actions are being perceived by the Arab and Muslim world, it's counterproductive in the long term.

 

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