Video: Tactics of Interrogation

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updated 1/17/2006 4:27:09 PM ET 2006-01-17T21:27:09

A former U.S. Army interrogator, who has just come forward with details of widespread military abuse of Iraqi prisoners during his tour in Iraq, joined Hardball's Chris Matthews to explain his recent statements.

Former Army Specialist Tony Lagouranis served as an interrogator in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.  He was stationed at the Abu Ghraib Prison two months after Iraqi detainees were abused there.  And he was later dispatched to Fallujah. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL':  Let‘s talk about a lot of this that we don‘t know about.  We‘ve heard a lot about this from theoreticians, but you‘ve been there.  You were an interrogator. 

MATTHEWS:  Who are most of the people that we capture, detain and interrogate?  Are they Iraqis that don‘t like the new order there after Saddam Hussein or are they foreigners who come in to fight for Jihad?  Who are they? 

TONY LAGOURANIS, FMR. ARMY INTERROGATOR:  Well, first of all, I‘d like to say that 90 percent of the people that I saw were in my opinion innocent.  And that was a pretty common figure that interrogators came up with that I spoke to. 

MATTHEWS:  How did we capture them?  Or why did we capture them? 

LAGOURANIS:  Often people are captured when they find a weapons cash, for instance, maybe hidden in a canal or hidden in a building.  And they don‘t know who the weapons belong to, so they just will go around and arrest people in the proximity of that cash for questioning. 

But they end up getting accused of maintaining that weapons cash.  That‘s just one way that people get arrested.  I could give you specific instances. 

MATTHEWS:  And most of them are Iraqis? 

LAGOURANIS:  Most of them.  The vast majority of them are Iraqis.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And when we bring them in, they just start rubber hosing them or start assuming their guilty?  Or what‘s the approach we take to prisoners?

LAGOURANIS:  Well, it depended on where you were.  I recall one unit, they told me that everybody who comes into that prison, everyone who is arrested is guilty.  And they really would only release people if there was overwhelming evidence that they hadn‘t...

MATTHEWS:  So you had to prove your innocence? 

LAGOURANIS:  Exactly.  Right.  Often I had to prove their innocence.  But the units who were responsible for releasing them or sending them up to Abu Ghraib wouldn‘t often listen to our recommendations. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did they assume because they picked them up in a sweep that they were guilty of actions against our new government over there?  

LAGOURANIS:  Well, I think there are two reasons for that.  The first one is that there‘s a mistaken belief that every Iraqi knows who the insurgents are.  So even if they, themselves didn‘t commit a crime, weren‘t hostile to the Americans, they knew who were hostile.  And so if they weren‘t talking to us, it was because they were sympathetic to the insurgents.  So that was one part of it. 

Another part was that when the detainee unit arrested somebody, they wanted that person to be guilty.  They wanted a confession out of them, and they didn‘t want to hear that they were making bad arrests.  And so it made their commander look better. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s the they here you keep talking about? 

LAGOURANIS:  Well, I worked with different units all over Iraq.  In particular, one of the worst units for this type of behavior was the 24th Marines.  I worked with them in north Babel. 

MATTHEWS:  And these were captains, majors?  What rank are people that talk to you, tell you what to do? 

LAGOURANIS:  The person in charge there, who I feel was setting policy was Colonel Johnson. 

MATTHEWS:  A colonel? 

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s right.  And the person who was sort of in charge of the judicial process was a lieutenant colonel. 

MATTHEWS:  And what did you watch them do?  I mean, you were doing it, so it‘s not a question of watching it.  What were you doing when you were interrogating people, these people that were picked up in sweeps that you thought were innocent? 

LAGOURANIS:  Well, let me give you an example of how the system worked.  I would get somebody, a prisoner, that they had picked up at a checkpoint.  This person had in his car a shovel and cell phone.  He didn‘t have any weapons or explosives.  He wasn‘t on a black list. 

And so I take this evidence that they think—the detainee unit thought that he could use these things to plant an IED and use the cell phone to detonate it.  So I interrogate him, and his story checks out of why he has these things.  There is nothing else to incriminate him.

I send up my report, and they send it back to me and say no, he must have something.  He is guilty.  We interrogate this guy maybe five times, and they still refuse to believe our recommendation that he hadn‘t done anything. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘re saying 90 percent of the people that are picked up are innocent or not involved in the insurgency against the new government over there? 

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s in my experience.  I think 90 percent might be a conservative number even. 

MATTHEWS:  What do we do with people when we determine that they are guilty? 

LAGOURANIS:  Well, in these outer detention facilities, they would get sent to be Abu Ghraib or Bucca to be processed there.  And if they‘re not guilty, once they‘re sent to these larger facilities, it often takes months to process them. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, if they aren‘t guilty what happens? 

LAGOURANIS:  If they‘re judged guilty then they‘ll either get sent to the Iraqi police and sent through an Iraqi judicial process or they‘ll stay in Abu Ghraib for further questioning. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what‘s the punishment though? 

LAGOURANIS:  I don‘t know what happens to them once they get to the Iraqi judicial process. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, do they disappear?  Did you ever hear from them later, people that you thought were innocent? 

LAGOURANIS:  I never heard from them later. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we executing people over there?  Are we putting them in prison camps beyond contact with everyone else?  Are we banishing them to some outer place in Iraq? 

LAGOURANIS:  I can‘t really say. 

MATTHEWS:  You really don‘t know what happened to all those people? 

LAGOURANIS:  I have no idea. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you ever ask? 

LAGOURANIS:  I don‘t recall ever asking.  Once they were out of the prison, they were out of my hands, and I got no feedback from them. 

MATTHEWS:  Because it seems to me you took an interest in trying to find the truth and in determining whether a person was actually an insurgent or terrorist or whatever or was actually an innocent bystander, and you were concerned because you thought what would happen to them if they were judged to be guilty. 

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m asking that as a question.  What were you worried would happen to people who were innocent? 

LAGOURANIS:  That they would spend too long in prison.  You know, it was sort of in a transition period during the year that I was there.  People were just crowding into Abu Ghraib and crowding into Camp Buka.  And they were staying there. 

And that‘s when we started transitioning to moving them out to an Iraqi judicial process.  But I don‘t know what happened to them at that point.  And I would have had no access to that information. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the people who were guilty, the 10 percent, as you see it.  What drove them to attack our forces or attack the forces of the new government?

LAGOURANIS:  Well, I would ask them that.  And when they were being frank with me I felt they told me—a lot of them mentioned the Abu Ghraib scandal.  The pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib. 

MATTHEWS:  But they were involved in insurgency before the Abu Ghraib.  That‘s a chicken and egg thing.  I mean they didn‘t get involved... 

LAGOURANIS:  Well, it depends on who you‘re talking about. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the people in Abu Ghraib at the time of the atrocities weren‘t there because of Abu Ghraib. 

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, they were there—tell me what the main opposition to the United States is based on there?  What is the main opposition just nationalism?  They don‘t like foreigners in their country.  Is it Sunnis who know that we‘re going to put the Shia in power?  What is it that drives the fighters over there to risk their lives and face prison?

LAGOURANIS:  I really can‘t answer that question, because I wasn‘t able to get an honest answer from enough people that I was convinced were insurgents.  So I can only give you a few examples of answers I got. 

I can tell you though that I knew interrogators who had interrogated at Fallujah during the last offensive in November, and they were getting a lot of foreigners coming in.  I very rarely saw that, where we were getting Syrians.

MATTHEWS:  From where?  What countries? 

LAGOURANIS:  Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, north Africa.  And mostly from what these interrogators told me, these people were mostly young college students.  Maybe they were studying Islam, and they were enraged by the American occupation, by the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib, and they came to fight the Jihad. 

MATTHEWS:  For the Jihad against the crusaders? 

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  Tell me about it.  Because I know this from talking to our producers that you talked about north Babel.  Tell me about where north Babel is in Iraq.

LAGOURANIS:  It‘s south of Baghdad.  It‘s about 15 minutes from Baghdad International Airport. 

MATTHEWS: Is this the Babel from the old testament? 

LAGOURANIS:  Sure.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And what was there a south Babel?  I mean, when we think about the tower or Babel or Babel or whatever it is pronounced, is that what we‘re talking about? 

LAGOURANIS:  It is right.  But I don‘t know if there is a south Babel.  But we were in north Babel, and it was Babylon.

MATTHEWS:  And let me ask you what did you see there in terms of abuse of prisoners?

LAGOURANIS:  Well, at that point it was sort of late in the year that I was there, and it was long after the scandal had broken.  So we were no longer using any harsh tactics in the prison, but I was seeing evidence of abuse that was taking place at the time of their capture. 

So when the force re-con Marines were thinking on, in particular, they were pretty bad in this regard.  They would stay in the detainees home at the time of the raid.  After they had been subdued, they would question them and they would punch them, kick them, broken bones.  I never saw this, but I saw the evidence of it, and I heard the story from many, many prisoners who were coming in.  And it was consistently from the Force Recon Marines. 

MATTHEWS:  Why were they doing it?  Were they sadistic or they were afraid?  What would motivate a soldier, a U.S. soldier, to beat up somebody? 

LAGOURANIS:  I think they wanted information.  I think they were frustrated by the lack of intelligence that was coming out of the prison facilities and they wanted new targets to hit.  They wanted to shut down the insurgency.

MATTHEWS:  Are we winning over there or losing over there in the grandest possible sense of that term, winning or losing?  Are we winning the hearts and minds or are we losing the hearts and minds? 

LAGOURANIS:  We‘re certainly losing the hearts and minds.  There‘s no doubt about that.

MATTHEWS:  Has the United States‘ action in Iraq increased the amount of terrorism or anti-western activity, militarily or paramilitarily, there would have been otherwise? 

LAGOURANIS:  Within Iraq? 

MATTHEWS. I guess that‘s a tautology.  Let me ask you this.  If we were to poll Iraq two years after our occupation, would we be better off, would their attitude toward Americans be better or worse? 

LAGOURANIS:  I think far worse.  From what the Iraqis told me, the vast majority of them were very happy when we invaded.  They hated Saddam Hussein.  The vast majority of them.

MATTHEWS:  What did they expect us to do, come in, rub our hands together, good working and then spike the ball and head out? 

LAGOURANIS:  Well, I think they were worried about was the lack of security, the lack of American dedication to repairing the infrastructure and providing jobs for Iraqis. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we going to give them breakfast in bed?  Why should America give jobs to Iraqis.  We‘re there to get rid of their dictator.  We got rid of him.  What do they want us to do then.  Then give them a country? 

LAGOURANIS:  Whether you‘re right or wrong—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just asking.  What do you think is a reasonable proposition for a foreign force?  I‘m just asking—what do they want?  They want us to give them houses and build jobs and do all this for them. 

LAGOURANIS:  I‘m not saying what is reasonable or unreasonable.  I‘m just telling you what the Iraqis, why they grew angry at the American occupation.  And a lot of it was arbitrary arrest, violence done to relatives and friends. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it more what we didn‘t do or did do? 

LAGOURANIS:  It‘s both.  Not providing security.  These things were big concerns for the Iraqis. 

MATTHEWS:  Senator John McCain said one month ago, "We‘ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists.  We have no grief for them.  But what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are."  And President Bush caved to his bill banning cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. 

What‘s it like inside a facility like you‘ve been in Mosul and Fallujah?  When you‘re inside a prison over there, what does it smell like, sound like, etc.?  Give me a picture, if you can of life inside one of those prisons. 

LAGOURANIS:  When I first got to be Abu Ghraib, we were occupying that hard site, you have the famous pictures of where there are actual cells with bars.  That was pretty depressing.  It was—

MATTHEWS:  Did it smell? 

LAGOURANIS:  It smelled pretty bad.  They were trying to keep it clean, but the prisoners didn‘t have regular opportunities to bathe. 

MATTHEWS:  Did it smell like B.O.?  What did it smell like?

LAGOURANIS:  B.O., some urine, whatever, sure. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

LAGOURANIS:  But when you got out to the outlying detention facilities like Mosul, like North Babel (ph), these things were normally outdoor compounds.  The prisoners might have wooden shacks or tents that they could sleep in.  But they were allowed to mill around and keep themselves clean. 

MATTHEWS:  It was horrible or just bad or unpleasant? 

LAGOURANIS:  Just unpleasant. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the—how often a day would a prisoner be exposed to some form of torture, some form of discomfort applied to him, to get him to talk? 

LAGOURANIS:  It depends.  Some prisoners when you interrogate them, that‘s not the method you want to use.  There‘s only a small number of them that we determined needed harsh treatment. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me an example of that. 

LAGOURANIS:  OK.  We might take this prisoner and throw him into a shipping container with loud music and strobe lights so that he couldn‘t sleep and was disoriented.  Force him to stand, kneel, or other difficult positions.  We wouldn‘t allow him to sleep.  We wouldn‘t allow him regular meals.  We‘d feed him, but not at regular intervals so he would become more disoriented.  And we would keep him in the cold.  It was cold in the nighttime, in Mosul, where we were doing this stuff. 

MATTHEWS:  Fahrenheit? 

LAGOURANIS:  Oh, 50, 55.  He would be in a thin polyester jumpsuit. 

MATTHEWS:  He would be shaking after a while? 

LAGOURANIS:  He‘d be shaking.  And we‘d keep this up with him for sometimes days. 

MATTHEWS:  What was it like to—what did it feel like to be doing that to another person?  Did you connect with these guys or did you see them as foreigners and different? 

LAGOURANIS:  Often I would connect with them.  Sometimes after we had been using these procedures on them.  And then I would spend a lot of time speaking with him, and interrogating him.  Sometimes I would form a connection with him, especially if I felt like they were innocent. 

MATTHEWS:  Were they praying during this to withstand the torture? 

LAGOURANIS:  Sometimes.

MATTHEWS:  What did it feel like trying to hurt a person who seemed so religious? 

LAGOURANIS::  I don‘t recall using those tactics on somebody who was extremely religious.  But they would often pray during this.  None of it felt good. 

MATTHEWS:  In your experience over there, did you ever hear anyone say I‘ll tell you what you want to know, and really tell you the truth?  Did anybody break? 

LAGOURANIS:  Not with those tactics.  The only time people give me information and broke was when I was developing a rapport with them. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think was the incentive that actually worked?  If you were to write a book right now, a page in a book of proper interrogation, what would you say worked?

LAGOURANIS:  I think it worked when I was able to convince the prisoner that I was willing to help him and that he could help himself by giving me information and that he didn‘t feel like he was incriminating himself.

He might be informing on some of his colleagues or something like that, but I wouldn‘t ask questions about his involvement so much.  And I‘d keep reassuring him that he—his involvement wasn‘t going to be punished.

MATTHEWS:  And you felt you got useful information out of that?

LAGOURANIS:  That was one of the only approaches that work.

MATTHEWS:  And how would you describe the information and its value to the U.S. forces over there?

LAGOURANIS:  Location of weapons caches and names of insurgents, tactics.

MATTHEWS: Tony, I‘m getting a lot of insight here.  You basically told us—I mean, this has to be checked over time, but 90 percent of the people we pick up over there are innocent of any activity, they just seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, picked up in sweeps.

Also, that you think the best kind of interrogation is, if you will, the softer kind, the more human, where you try to figure the person out and connect with the person, rather than to torture them.  But let me ask you about the—your reaction when you saw the Abu Ghraib pictures.  What did they say to you, when you saw this young woman, you know, towing a guy around by a dog collar and you saw all this kind of packing of people together, there naked people like hot dogs or something—you know, a hot dog pack.  What did that all say to you?

LAGOURANIS:  Well, it‘s funny, because at that time that that scandal broke and the picture came out, I was using the harshest tactics that I used all year in Mosul.  I was using dogs, I was using stress positions.  And I look at those pictures and I was horrified.  And I thought that this -- you know, these were bad apples.  Because...

MATTHEWS:  ... But you were doing the same thing.

LAGOURANIS:  Well not exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Were you doing that, putting dogs within a couple feet of a guy‘s face?

LAGOURANIS:  Yes, we were doing that.

MATTHEWS:  Well what were they doing differently than you?

LAGOURANIS:  Well that particular picture could have been a picture of me.  I mean, that was...

MATTHEWS:  ... What was a professional interrogator doing there?

LAGOURANIS:  He was trying to terrify the prisoner and induce a panic attack.

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he‘s going to let that dog—he‘s making the—look at the poor guy‘s face.  I‘m going to say he‘s a good guy or bad guy, but look at that poor guy‘s face, scared to death that dog is going to bite his nose off.

LAGOURANIS:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the idea, right?

LAGOURANIS:  That‘s the idea, right.  So you want him to become so afraid that he‘ll tell you anything.  I don‘t really think it‘s a very effective technique.

MATTHEWS:  Did it work for you?

LAGOURANIS:  It never worked for me.

MATTHEWS:  What about this water boarding, where somehow you lay a person down and you pour water over their face, you convince them they‘re drowning, because you probably are drowning them, aren‘t you?

LAGOURANIS:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s why you‘re convincing them you‘re drowning them.

LAGOURANIS:  Right.  I think that must be terrifying.  But I never saw that happen.  I did—an interrogator in North Babel, he was a Marine interrogator, told me that he had done that to a prisoner and that same prisoner told me that...

MATTHEWS:  ... And what did he say about it, the guy who did it?  Was he proud he did it?

LAGOURANIS:  He was proud he did it, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

LAGOURANIS:  Because he felt like he was a cutting-edge interrogator and getting intelligence.

MATTHEWS:  Did he say he got anything out of it?

LAGOURANIS:  He did get intelligence out of that particular prisoner.  I don‘t know if it was as a result of that technique, probably it was.

MATTHEWS:  Where do you stand, having been through this training and experience of an interrogator, on the question that keeps popping up in America?  Should we outlaw torture?  Because I know the president, even though he signed the bill, and this sounds very nice, he also put in a caveat saying, “I‘ll still be commander-in-chief and I‘ll do what I have to.”

LAGOURANIS:  What‘s my opinion on torture?  I don‘t think we should be using it.  I don‘t think it‘s good for us as a nation to lower our moral standards.

MATTHEWS:  Suppose you had picked up Moussaoui, the guy, the 20th hijacker, he‘s called—the guy‘s who picked up in Minnesota, who was getting flight training in a way that suggests that he was going to be part of the hell that hit us on 9/11.  And you got him a week or so before the terror.  What would you have done with him, to get the truth out of him?  What would the other guy, the 19 guys up to?

LAGOURANIS:  Well, you know, I might have tortured him.  You know, if there‘s a ticking bomb scenario, I might have tortured him.  But I shouldn‘t be held to account for that afterwards. 

And part of the problem in what we‘re doing in Iraq is we‘ve given the power to abuse detainees and torture people to everyone, to every infantry private, to every specialist interrogator, to anyone.  And that‘s...

MATTHEWS:  ... Anybody that picks up somebody can do what they want to them.

LAGOURANIS:  Right, and they‘re not—I mean, not legally.  They‘re not supposed to be doing that, but it‘s tacitly allowed, and that‘s what‘s happening.  And we can‘t behave like that.

MATTHEWS:  And this is hurting us in the world?

LAGOURANIS:  Absolutely.  It‘s hurting us in Iraq.  I mean, it‘s fueling the insurgency.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you for coming up.  We‘ve got to take a lot of what you take seriously.  Thank you for what you gave us tonight, Tony Lagouranis.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

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