The Talking Dog

August 8, 2006, TD Blog Interview with Erik Saar

As a sergeant in the United States Army, Erik Saar served as an Arabic linguist at the American detention facility located at the naval air station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, assisting in both interrogations and in routine translations between guards and detainees. He is the author (with Viveca Novak) of
"Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo". Mr. Saar now works as an analyst in the counter-terrorism field in the private sector. On August 2, 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Saar by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Saar.      
The Talking Dog: My customary first question is "where were you on 9-11"?  In my case, the answer was in my office, across the street from the WTC; we know from your book that you were on an army base in Arizona.  If you would, can you expand on the explanation you gave in the book, and tell us the significance to you of having decided to be serving in the United States Army on that date, including, if you think relevant, the reactions of others you were serving with at the time, your family and friends?         
Erik Saar: When I enlisted, I chose to study Arabic because I was passionate about and was interested in the Middle East. It was a change for me-- my undergraduate major was in marketing. I thought it would be a region of great importance to the nation in the future. When I enlisted in 1998, certainly there was already substantial activity in the region. On September 11th, I and others in the linguists service and in the intelligence community knew our lives would be different.     
It certainly changed my life professionally. Obviously the importance of having learned Arabic was magnified. As to the reactions of my friends and family, people were certainly concerned that as an Arabic linguist, I could be deployed just about anywhere. People were asking questions about the threat posed by Islamist terrorist and others. I realized that my life was changing. A lot of people had different reactions from 9-11, of course-- anger, sadness, bitterness. I too experienced all of those emotions but in a way I also felt proud that I had a skill to contribute to the defense of this country.     
The Talking DogYou, of course, were trained as an Arabic linguist, by the Army, and had an interest in intelligence matters.  Besides your service at Guantanamo, had you had occasion to use your Arabic skills in the remainder of your Army service (and if the answer is classified, obviously let me know)?  Your book noted a chronic shortage of Arabic language translators at Gitmo that frequently resulted in involuntary extensions of soldiers' and translators' time there; did this condition improve during the course of your Army career, and if you know, was this situation more pervasive than at Guantanamo, and (as a bonus question!), do you have any idea what proportion (without disclosing anything classified!) of the military's "Arabic linguistic capacity" was devoted to the Gitmo operation?       
Erik Saar: When I left Guantanamo in June of 2003, I had a year left on my army enlistment. I spent that time assigned to the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. Army wide, there was certainly a shortage of linguists.     
The Army's traditional way of training linguists is principally to read and to listen; the 63-week class is excellent, but its emphasis is on reading and listening with speaking and conversation secondary. Linguists' skills in these areas improve dramatically once deployed in the theater quite rapidly, but there has been a good deal of frustration that Army linguists, for example, usually couldn't go right up to a village leader or sheikh and immediately engage in conversation, because their skills are not up to that level just out of language school. To some extent, the Army has adjusted to this by hiring civilian contractors.     
During my last year, there was a stop-loss in effect for certain professions-- linguists among them, along with intel analysts and other job specialties - meaning that even when the enlistment was up, one couldn't leave the service. There were also entire units to which stop loss orders applied. The stop-loss was in effect before I left for Guantanamo; it was off by the time I left-- apparently, the Army caught up with its need for linguists.    
The Talking DogYou've suggested that Guantanamo is and was an intelligence failure, as you believe that little intelligence of any value arose from the interrogations.  Besides your personal knowledge, you've suggested this was "general knowledge" at Guantanamo... do you have any further basis to make this statement? You've suggested that at most a few dozen out of the then 600 and now around 500 detainees at Guantanamo were actual terrorists; what is the basis for your concluding that?    
Erik Saar: I have said-- for example, in my "60-Minutes interview"-- that I believed only a few dozen detainees were "hardened terrorists". However, I was told by our leadership, as were the Aamerican people, of course, that Guantanamo was to hold "the worst of the worst". In my view, hardened terrorists attended terrorist training facilities and training camps, and had the intention and capability of committing direct attacks against western targets. So defined, the number of such people at Guantanamo was at most a few dozen. Other detainees may certainly have attended a camp. Others were certainly "on a battlefield" for various reasons. However these are not, to my mind, "hardened terrorists", or “the worst of the worst.” There may be very good reasons to detain such individuals but my point is that American soldiers and the American people were misled. Gitmo did not hold the “worst of the worst.” Any member of the intelligence community could confirm that and tell you the “worst of the worst” are elsewhere.     
I anticipated this to be a bigger issue when I wrote the book-- I thought I would often be hammered on this point because I couldn't "prove" it. But I tend not to get that many questions about this-- perhaps because a whole variety of other sources have confirmed the same point... indeed, other government agencies have come out with similar accounts.    
I noted that around a year ago, the Pentagon itself released a report that tried to refute the point that Gitmo had been, if not an outright intelligence failure, at least not the source of very much useful intelligence. When I read the report, it seemed to indicate that a whole lot of valuable intelligence was coming from Guantanamo. Yet what the reader doesn't know is that this intelligence could have come from 20 different people or fewer, and been pieced together, or could have come from a very tiny number of people among the hundreds detained.    
Intelligence has to be placed in the context within which it is collected. In my view, when measured against the damage Guantanamo has done to to our international reputation that Guantanamo has caused-- we should ask ourselves if the "intelligence" (if any) we have acquired will be worth it if it creates new terrorists. I stand by my argument that in the greater war against terrorism, the "best stuff" isn't coming from Gitmo-- and never has. And it was to acquire that supposedly critical intelligence that served as the justification for the existence and manner of operation of Guantanamo in the first place.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up that thought, and ask if you can tell me the significance of "SERE", to wit the military acronym for "survive, elude, resist, escape", or the training given by branches of the military to personnel likely to be captured and interrogated... I noted that at least one of the attorneys I interviewed, and a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer
have suggested that some in the military have tried to "reverse engineer" SERE techniques by trying them out at Guantanamo... can you comment on that?
Erik Saar: I've never attended SERE school. I probably wasn't all that aware of SERE and related activities while I was at Guantanamo so much as after I left. As such, what I'll tell you is in the nature of my instinct and opinion-- really a hunch I have. My hunch is that the answer is yes-- SERE school techniques, especially the fear-up and humiliation techniques, were being used by Guantanamo interrogators. This month's issue of Esquire magazine
an article on "the confessions of interrogator" . The interrogator in that article uses these techniques. I would say that anyone who knows anyone who has been to SERE school would recognize the SERE techniques, and as such, it looks like these techniques were applied at Guantanamo.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up that by asking you about "BSCT's" (or "biscuits"), the military acronym for Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, where it has been alleged that certain psychologists and doctors may have used knowledge of detainees fears (or, it is alleged in some cases, medical conditions) against them... what is your knowledge of BSCTs at Guantanamo?    
Erik Saar: I knew that BSCTs existed, but I did not put detail about this in the book. BSCTs probably were involved in helping interrogators develop interrogation plans. I can't comment on how they set up interrogation booths, but certainly, interrogators had to prepare written interrogation plans. They certainly did so between January and June of 2003, when I was there. But things didn't always go according to plan... when interrogation took place, there was a detainee, a linguist and an interrogator; there was a room with no tape recorder, usually. What happened in the interrogation room doesn't always follow the plan. Interrogators were encouraged to be creative-- to use "unique approaches". Interrogators were given great latitude, and this latitude... often resulted in some of the situations described in the book.    
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about your training in the Army Field Manual 34-52 on interrogations, which I understand contains limitations consistent with the Geneva Conventions...    
Erik Saar: Let me stop you there, because this is a critical point that isn't discussed much. I was NEVER trained in the Army Field Manual on interrogations. Indeed, no Army linguists as far as I know were trained in interrogations. Linguists were ordered NOT to question what they saw. Military interrogators and linguists were supposed to "balance" each other. Of course, linguists had a conflict. This was especially so among civilian contractors, who would frequently tell interrogators that what they were doing was outside the custom and norm of the culture of the detainee, and hence, likely to be counter-productive.    
Training is a critical factor-- training is everything in the service; we do nothing unless we are trained to do it first. We were, of course, lectured as I described in the book that we had "detainees" who were not POWs because they didn't wear uniforms and other legal explanations given and as such interrogators didn't have to comply with Geneva Conventions. BUT-- interrogators had been trained one way-- don't EVER violate the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, I recall one incident where an interrogation trainee made a joke during interrogation school about "now we go to the electric shock"-- he was almost thrown out of interrogation school just for joking like that.

The drill was all Geneva all the time, BECAUSE INTERROGATION IS AND CAN BE MOST EFFECTIVE WITHIN THOSE LIMITS. At Guantanamo, of course, the constraints were "relaxed" by various orders, but the interrogators had never been trained in the new methods.    
When I had the Power Point presentation telling us Geneva didn't have to apply, I left, not particularly outraged, but kind of confused. My thinking was a process-- when I left that meeting, my thought was-- this is contrary to Army practice-- we are not TRAINED for this... how can we use techniques that we are NOT TRAINED IN and how do we know this is effective?... Its not just the interrogation methods themselves that are contrary to every aspect of Army practice-- but using improvised, untested techniques that interrogators were not trained in, regardless of what they were-- is contrary to procedure as we were drilled.    
The Talking DogYou've suggested that it was conveyed to you that the detainees might try to manipulate you in the course of your translating for them; do you believe that happened?  To the extent you can, and if appropriate, without naming names... were there any detainees that particularly stand out in your mind as individuals, and what can you tell us about them?      
Erik Saar: Was I manipulated? No, I don't think I was, but that's probably what everybody says! Let me say that I had no decision making authority- I couldn't, for example, help anyone make a case of their own innocence or guilt. And for most purposes, this was irrelevant from where I stood.    
Yes, certainly detainees tried to "use" linguists, in two main ways. One was befriending linguists by being extra nice in the hope of getting the linguist to be an advocate. The other especially applied to Moslem linguists, by trying to make them feel guilty, as if they were traitors for contributing to the mistreatment of other Moslems. It had an effect. I'm not sure what benefit it had for the detainees... but being a linguist was a hard job-- a very difficult job, and probably more so for the Moslem linguists.    
As to the detainees... one detainee had a very compelling story. He was a Saudi described in the book. We talked outside the interrogation booth; he conveyed a long story. He told me that he knew nothing and did nothing; he said he never hated our country, but that he believed we stood for justice and liberty, but how can he any longer reconcile that with what we are doing to him and others?    
It didn't manipulate me, but it left an impression. Yes, he certainly might be lying... but what if he wasn't? What are we doing? That was the impression. He planted seeds in the nature of "what if what he says is true?" Yes, at some level, all of this is part of war-- even mistakes get made. But on the whole, it contributes to the whole sense that Gitmo is not worth it... especially when considering what it has done to our reputation and our ability to effectively prosecute the war on terror.    
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up on that reputation point... can you elaborate on that, and specifically, I take it you are referring to the unfortunate international reputation Guanatanamo Bay has earned, particularly in the Moslem world?      
Erik Saar: In criticizing my book, the Pentagon at times has argued that I am just a junior soldier, not privy to "the big picture".  But the Army trained me to be an Arabic linguist, and in doing so, I learned a fair amount about Arabic culture and context. I still work in the area of counter-terrorism research. As such, I am constantly reviewing what the jihadists are saying-- and Gitmo is in their verbiage every day-- they are constantly using it to try to prove their point... We may not believe this, but most Moslems now fully BELIEVE that we are hypocrites. How can we say that we stand for freedom, liberty, democracy, the rule of law... when we operate a place like Guantanamo which has become a stain on our democracy? It stands as a shining example of the worst impression we can make.   
The Talking Dog: Let me follow up on that "junior NCO"
point. In your book, you've described a "Potemkin Village" situation when, for example, visiting flag officers, government officials, Congressmen or other VIPs would come to Guantanamo, whereby "successful" interrogations with previously cooperative prisoners would be more or less re-staged for the VIPs benefit.  How many of these situations did you observe, did you participate as a translator in any of them, and did you ever complain to your military superiors about it?  And again, how do you respond to the Pentagon's counter-comment that you were just a junior linguist, and that the decisions of who and how to conduct interrogations were above your pay-grade, and other attempts to challenge your observations?
Erik Saar:  There is no question that I was a junior NCO-- and on policy issues surrounding intel gathering, there is certainly some validity to arguing that I was not in the inner circle. However, the argument is substantially undermined simply because I had access to every single detainee file. Guantanamo is, and was, a small community. One understands the impressions. One talks to interrogators, and comes away with a pretty good understanding of what is happening.  
Did I complain to superiors about this? No, I didn't. Did I participate in these staged interrogations? Not me personally, but my friends did, and I happened to be on the classified e-mail list on which were sent instructions that described how to handle VIP visits!  
What's interesting is that, just as the question above got little interest, this area has gotten immense interest, and yet I didn't anticipate it being a big deal! I thought that everyone involved-- especially the VIPs-- would have figured out the whole thing was staged! I mean, how could one not know they were being duped? Interrogations at 2 in the afternoon, when everything went perfectly?  
You just can't convince me that the people involved didn't know they were being duped. Now, why didn't a single one say-- I see the schedule has a 2:30 A.M. interrogation-- I'd like to see that? And yet-- no one did. Instead, six people sat in an air conditioned observation room around while a detainee and an interrogator eat McDonalds together creating this false impression that everything was great...  
They should have known it was all B.S.-- that it was all a big show.  
The TalkingDog: OK, let me use that a segue into a question I wanted to ask later, but I think applies to this. And that is my supposition that the higher ups simply didn't care whether they got any useful intelligence, i.e., they knew they by and large had people with no connection to Al Qaeda, but simply wanted to "look tough" for political or other "non-military" reasons?   
Erik Saar: I thought that was a most interesting question, and no one has asked me that question in quite that way. One part of me wants to answer "Maybe". But my answer is I don't think so, and here's why. To the point of complete ignorance, a lot of our leaders thought that Guantanamo was full of bad people-- actual terrorists, all with useful intelligence if we could get it out of them.  
The initial process of how detainees got to Guantanamo was what was most flawed. The mistakes just unfolded and compounded from there.  
The Talking Dog: And, of course, no one would admit that any mistakes were made...  
Erik Saar: No, and that's critically important. I spoke with someone who was an officer involved from the get-go in setting up the base for detentions. He certainly had a belief that we needed a place to send the worst people around, and that Guantanamo was that place and the people we were sending were the worst. The original concept was an effort-- or at least a belief--that the people sent to Gitmo only were hardened al Qaeda members. However I believe there both practical and political reasons that detainees often left Afghanistan and found themselves in Guantanamo’s legal black hole. Eventually detainees were sent so rapidly that who was who in an intelligence sense became hopelessly convoluted.  
Even if you put aside any moral problems with the possibility of detaining men who shouldn't be there, you're left with a hopeless problem of how can I-- a junior NCO-- figure out who is who? Some of these guys were trained terrorists; others were sheep herders in the wrong place. You're putting junior soldiers in a position of trying to sort this out, and you are asking for a disaster.  
The Talking dog: Well, it's 2006. Would you concur that by now, it's pretty clear that the only reason we are maintaining Gitmo to this point is a political one?  
Erik Saar: I think there are definitely political reasons for why more changes haven’t been made and why the camp still exists. There has to be a better option.  
The Talking Dog: Were you present as a translator during visits by the International Committee for the Red Cross?  You've said that certain prisoners whose heads and eyebrows were shaved were hidden from the Red Cross... how do you know this?  Are you aware of other prisoners hidden from the Red Cross?  Am I correct that you were under standing orders not to talk to the Red Cross?   
Erik Saar:  As to the Red Cross, we were certainly under standing orders not to talk to them. I certainly saw Red Cross personnel around the base. There was a period during early 2003 when the Red Cross trailer was empty-- no one was there! I must say, the base superiors said that they preferred it that way! I saw the Red Cross personnel go to where the detainees were held. 
As to the moving of detainees whose heads and eyebrows were shaved, I knew this because there was a list posted of the locations of detainees, as well as where Red Cross personnel were, and I knew from the guards where the Red Cross was going at a given time. Also, friends of mine were responsible for overall intelligence matters interally for the base, and they would explain this (hiding of prisoners, if you will) to me. 
The Talking Dog: As we're running out of time, before I ask you my all-purpose follow-up of telling me anything I should have asked you but didn't or that otherwise readers need to know, let me jump to one of the subjects I think you are invariably asked about, that being the interrogation you translated where a female translator attempted to break down a Saudi prisoner by pretending to smear his face with menstrual blood (which was actually ink), and preventing him from washing to ritually cleanse himself.  Let me ask the question this way: were there other interrogation methods that you observed that you consider abusive that you can talk about?   
Erik Saar: There are no other methods that come to mind as such... and I can talk about these. So, no, there are no other methods I would describe as what I would find offensive. Let me say it this way: different people have different sensitivities and sensibilities. My own views were formed by many factors. For example, I understand how some people might find chair throwing and screaming obscenities to be distasteful... but there may be a place for it. As to the "unorthodox" interrogation methods, (such as the disrespect of detainees' religion and the interrogation you described), let's just say that I have never-- NEVER-- seen these things actually work and would argue they are entirely inconsistent with the values soldiers are supposed to defend. 
Indeed, my knowledge of Arab culture tells me that these methods will NOT work. This is entirely separate from the moral argument that these methods are just intrinsically wrong-- let me say that if we are willing to go there-- if intimidation, fear, humiliation are to be used-- if we are to take ourselves to that level-- there damned well better be good intelligence resulting from havintg paid this price. But there isn't. And just being "creative" in a laboratory of testing new interrogation methods is NOT THE SETTING FOR IT. 
The Talking Dog: Not to mention a probable violation of Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.         
Erik Saar: Well, on that note, this hasn't been brought out, but let me say this: it hasn't been clarified in light of what the Supreme Court just ruled in the Hamdan case. What does this mean? What does it mean for junior soldiers-- like myself-- who may have been ordered to violate international law? How can you not look at what the Supreme Court just held, and separate it from the ultimate-- THE ULTIMATE-- failure of leadership. 
Let's look at Lynndie England. Should she have understood that she was receiving illegal orders? Certainly. Should she be punished? Sure-- but
11 years in prison seems excessive-- especially when only lower level soldiers are paying the price. A military organization's good order and discipline requires that soldiers follow their orders-- you cannot run an army if orders are routinely questioned. But... 
Since leaving Guantanamo I have discussed this with JAG officers... I asked "does this mean we all violated international law?" Needless to say, they couldn't give me a response! 
What would have happened if a junior soldier-- an interrogator or a translator, or both-- said "I'm sorry, sir, this order violates international law and I will not comply"? Best case their career would have been over. Worst case they would have faced discipline, if not outright court-martial and jail. Yes, they would have just been vindicated by the Supreme Court, but... who would do it? 
I WISH someone would have done it. They'd be justified now. But all along the way, no E-3, E-4 or E-5 should be deciding this. Culpability for this goes all the way up the chain of command... 
The Talking Dog: Would you say up to and including (if not
especially) the commander in chief?
Erik Saar: Absolutely. All the way up to the commander in chief. He forced people to break the law. And it wasn't necessary. Junior people have been hung out to dry, and at the end of the day, what has been gained from it? 
The Talking Dog:  Would you like that to be the last word?          
Erik Saar: Yes, let that be the last word. 
The Talking Dog: On behalf of myself and my readers, let me thank you for that candid and powerful interview.  

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainee Shafiq Rasul , with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, and with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy to be of interest.


Point of Information, it isn't one Army Field Manual, it is a series of manuals.

The FM which covers interrogation is FM 34-52.

Terry Karney


Posted by Terry Karney at August 9, 2006 4:58 AM

Thank you for pointing that out; I have made a correction to the text of my question.

Posted by the talking dog at August 9, 2006 8:40 AM

In a strange twist, Robin Williams and Mel Gibson have gotten together in rehab and collaborated on a pilot: MAD MORK. The story of an orange pantsuit wearing Anti-Semitic Extra-Terrestrial that wanders the galaxy in a beat up Chevy looking for oil and Jewish conspiracies. Starring Rip Torn.

Posted by Billy Batts at August 9, 2006 7:19 PM