The New York Times and Interrogation: a Response From a Veteran
By J. E. McCollough
On March 19 the New York Times ran an op-ed, Owning Up to Torture, by a former contract interrogator who had worked in Iraq in 2004. This is my open letter in response to Mr. Eric Fair’s comments.
Quakers don’t sign up for the infantry. Eric Fair clearly had no business agreeing to be an interrogator. He has every right to process his feelings for what he did as an interrogator in Iraq, but he has no right to say by implication that the men and women who conducted interrogations lawfully, in fact committed torture.
Eric Fair claims he tortured people. He says he slapped Iraqis and made them stand up and kept them awake. These were all lawful techniques for American interrogators. These were techniques that were well-considered and fully reviewed and approved by higher headquarters every time they were implemented. And as implemented these methods were not torture. Eric Fair admits as much.
But in his mind and per his conscience, he feels he tortured people. He says he followed all the rules, and yet he still believes he engaged in torture.
But “torture” is a legally defined word, just as “murder” is well-codified. Certain acts are considered torture or murder, some are not. Casually using either word is completely inappropriate. Just as a soldier that kills someone in legitimate, sanctioned combat isn’t guilty of murder, neither is an interrogator who conducts his job properly guilty of torture. Eric Fair seems to be screaming “baby killer” at himself, and he’s as wrong as that war protester we see in the movies spitting on soldiers returning from combat.
I was a Marine Corps interrogator and counterintelligence specialist (Military Occupational Specialities 0251 and 0211, respectively). I fought on the front lines in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2004 I conducted over three hundred interrogations and interviews in Ramadi, Iraq, about sixty kilometers from where the author of the New York Times article was conducting interrogations in Fallujah.
I did pretty much the exact same job as Eric Fair, but I didn’t torture anyone (he was a contractor, I was still in the Marines). He, for some reason, feels conflicted, but my conscience is clear. He says he lost his humanity, but I didn’t lose any of my mine. In fact, the information I acquired via lawful and proper interrogations of the enemy resulted in saving the lives of other Marines. My humanity survived my combat experience largely because I succeeded at my job. One of my proudest moments in combat was when my commanding officer told me the information I acquired from one of my interrogations prevented an Iraqi ambush, saved the lives of a company of Marines, and killed dozens of the enemy. Eric Fair regrets what he did, so I can only assume he is uncomfortable saving his fellow Americans’ lives.
Fair’s mental distress at conducting interrogations comes through clearly in his article. And that’s to be expected. Conducting an interrogation properly means intense personal involvement on the part of the interrogator. It means building rapport with the enemy, and necessarily empathizing with killers. Imagine trying to befriend someone you know just killed one of your Marines, or soldiers. Engaging the enemy on such a intimate level and manipulating them into providing information is stressful for everyone involved. So is killing someone in combat. I would suggest most of the people who have killed in war suffer from moral conflict over what they’ve done.
But that doesn’t mean what we did as interrogators was illegal, or should be called “torture,” or that we interrogators should be considered morally reprehensible for what we’ve done. Even more importantly, we as a society should never tell the sons and daughters we sent to combat in our name that they’ve done something immoral.
Eric Fair’s moral crisis is his own. If he believes he tortured people, fine, his personal issues are all on him. I personally believe he is a coward and is only now shouting his mea culpa from the rooftops for his own aggrandizement and to increase his speaking fees and promote his forthcoming book. He was a DoD contractor in Iraq, he wasn’t in uniform. He could have quit literally at any time and been on the next plane home if he truly felt he was doing something immoral or illegal.
Regardless of his own moral predicament, Fair has no right to imply that I or any of the other hundreds of dedicated, loyal American interrogators tortured anyone. We did our job, we did it well, we saved American lives, and we didn’t torture anyone.