Seven years ago, I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about my role conducting abusive interrogations in places like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah: “An Iraq interrogator’s nightmare” (Feb. 9, 2007). I ended the piece by suggesting that the story of Abu Ghraib and abusive interrogations wasn’t over. In many ways, I thought, we had yet to open the book.
The book never opened. Instead, our country spent the next seven years denying, ignoring or defending our use of interrogation practices that manipulated and abused the emotional, mental and physical well-being of thousands of foreign detainees.
In recent weeks, reports have emerged about growing friction between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and CIA officials responsible for an internal report on interrogation. But the public discussion about interrogation has been dominated by a debate that focuses on a cost-benefit analysis. Does U.S. safety and security mandate the suspension of ethical standards? Is the physical well-being of Americans more valuable than codes of honor? Do we value our bodies more than our souls?
I sympathize with the men and women who have found themselves on the front lines confronting these difficult questions. They feel isolated and overwhelmed. Their war has been ignored by an alarming percentage of Americans. An even larger percentage has failed to serve alongside them. Meanwhile, that same public demands a nearly impossible standard of success. Those demands and expectations are channeled down through civilian and military leaders who pressure subordinates to produce results in the most challenging environments.
Nevertheless, the few of us who had the courage to serve remain responsible for our actions.
Even the staunchest supporters of aggressive interrogation practices acknowledge their malicious nature. They say the tactics are a necessary evil, or are practiced in the shadows, or belong in the dark. They fight to keep the stories quiet. They classify, deflect, deny. They don’t just close the book: They erase it. But an accounting of our failures is the only way forward.
Late in the summer of 2005, I returned from Iraq for the second time. My conscience was poisoned, my moral code shattered. I resigned my position with the National Security Agency the following year and returned home to Pennsylvania in an effort to address the consequences of my actions. Eight years later, the struggle continues.
I have spent much of that time researching and pursuing avenues of forgiveness. I studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, attended conferences on torture, published articles about my involvement in interrogation and befriended a rabbi who walked me through the process of repentance. The rabbi introduced me to the writings of Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher who wrote about the importance of being specific during the process of confession. So let me be specific.
In April 2004 I was stationed at a detention facility in Fallujah. Inside the detention facility was an office. Inside the office was a small chair made of plywood and two-by-fours. The chair was two feet tall. The rear legs were taller than the front legs. The seat and chair back leaned forward. Plastic zip ties were used to force a detainee into a crouched position from which he could not recover. It caused muscle failure of the quads, hamstrings and calves. It was torture.
The detainees in Fallujah were the hardest set of men I’ve ever come upon. Many killed with a sickening enthusiasm. They often butchered what remained of their victims. It is easy to argue that they deserved far worse.
Still, those tactics stained my soul, maybe justifiably so. But as members of our government and its agencies continue to defend our use of torture, and as the American people continue to ignore their obligation to uncover this sordid chapter, the stain isn’t mine alone.
Jose Rodriguez Jr., the former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, insists that those who suggest we question more gently have never felt the burden of protecting innocent lives. I’ve felt that burden. And when the time came, I did not question gently.
I’m dealing with my own burdens now. My marriage is struggling. My effectiveness as a parent is deteriorating. My son is suffering. I am no longer the person I once was. I try to repent. I work to confess. I hope for atonement.
As a country, we need to confess. We need to be specific. We need to open the book.
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The writer served in the Army from 1995 to 2000 as an Arabic linguist and worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in early 2004. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.